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Transport Canada scrutinized for safety snafus

March 12, 2016

Written by  David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor – Railway Age

The reputation of Canada’s much-criticized rail regulator is being further pummeled, both by its elected master and by the union representing line-side safety inspectors.

The Canadian government revealed March 9, 2016 that it has placed Transport Canada under special oversight by the Treasury Board, the country’s guardian of public finances. The apparent cause was a hiring binge of rail safety inspectors without budgetary authorization.

Lac MeganticThen, a day later, the leader of the union representing those same rail inspectors called for a criminal investigation into Transport Canada’s top rail regulators with respect to the special treatment they accorded the railway involved in the July 2013 oil-train runaway that caused the deaths of 47 people at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

In an unsettling revelation to Railway Age March 10, Christine Collins, national president of the Union of Canadian Transport Employees, said that Transport Canada inspectors had strongly recommended, in writing, that the now-defunct Montreal, Maine & Atlantic not be allowed to operate dangerous goods trains with just one crewman. The inspectors were overruled by at least one senior Transport Canada executive, said Collins. The executive left Transport Canada shortly after Lac-Mégantic.

“Our members told us they expressed their concern about the safety practices of the railway, but that their recommendations were disregarded by senior management,” said Collins.

Whoever overruled the inspectors by giving the lowly regarded company such special dispensation from normal operating rules “should be charged under the health and safety provisions of the Canada Labour Code,” said Collins.

No employee of Transport Canada has been publicly held to account for what proved to be a disastrous derogation from normal safety policy. Why MM&A was given special treatment has never been explained.

Only the engineer and five other MM&A employees have been criminally charged under the Railway Safety Act and the Fisheries Act for negligence related to Lac-Mégantic. Their trials are pending.

Until now, it was widely believed that the MM&A train had slipped its automatic brakes, as air slowly leaked from the cylinders located on each of its 72 tank cars. In fact, only the locomotive’s independent air brake was set to back up what tragically turned out to be an insufficient number of handbrakes set by the engineer before leaving the train unattended—with the diesel engine running to maintain air pressure. When firefighters arrived to extinguish a fire in the diesel engine, they shut down the locomotive. It was not restarted before a railway employee left the train unattended, for the second time that night.

Astonishingly, MM&A policy expressly forbade the application of automatic brakes before leaving trains unattended—even trains parked at the top of a long downgrade, and loaded with hazardous materials.

While contention clouds the notion that automatic brakes should be applied as a belt to the suspenders of hand brakes, there seems little reason to doubt that application of the automatic brakes would have, at the very least, delayed the Lac-Megantic runaway by several hours—enough time for the patrons of the town’s nightspots to close, effectively vacating the downtown area.

This logical but nonetheless provocative proposition was advanced March 8 by Toronto’s Globe and Mail, which retrieved a heretofore-unreported, but critically important sentence in the 2014 investigation report (mea culpa on behalf of all journalists who covered this story):

“While MM&A instructions did not allow the automatic brakes to be set, following a proper hand-brake effectiveness test, doing so would have acted as a temporary, secondary defense, one that likely would have kept the train secured, even after the eventual release of the independent brakes.”

In an apparently contradictory statement March 9, Transportation Safety Board Chair Kathy Fox said:

“Air brakes are known to leak; and the rate of leakage is completely unpredictable on any given railcar, at any given time. Since there are other solutions that are permanent, it is preferable that railways use ones that would ensure that equipment is secured for indefinite periods. For this reason, we object to the assertion that these “would have been a sufficient backup to the hand brakes.”

One indisputable assertion is that Canada’s rail safety regime is in a state of internal disarray and public disrepute.

Upon his appointment late last year, the country’s new Transport Minister, Marc Garneau, promised to make reform of rail regulation a priority. Industry observers will be scrutinizing the government’s March 22 budget for promises of investment in bureaucratic reform.

| Posted in Transport Canada

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