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Rail Safety and Public Confidence

By Wendy A. Tadros,
Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article was published in the October 16 online edition of The Globe and Mail.

Barely three months ago, the town of Lac-Mégantic was almost unknown outside Quebec. Today, it is famous—or infamous—a broken paradise whose name has become shorthand for disaster, tragedy and fear.

“We don't want another Mégantic,” people say as they flood call-in shows (and OpEd pages) across Canada. In fact, over the past few months there has been a seismic shift in public concern, one that has grown with every new derailment that hits the front page. Today, that concern has manifested itself in a heightened fear over rail safety, a fear that goes beyond a single tragedy in rural Quebec.

In this new environment, it is no longer enough for industry and government to cite previous safety records or a gradual, 20-year decline in the number of main-track derailments. There has been an erosion of public trust, and Canadians require reassurance that action is being taken, that risks are being properly identified and mitigated, and that future movements will be safe.

To do this, the rail industry will have to undergo its own seismic shift and address a multitude of issues, many of which the TSB has been advocating for years. This includes installing more of the best trackside detection systems; adopting modern fail-safe methods of stopping trains; shipping dangerous goods only in tank cars that meet the toughest standards; and, above all, shoring up safety management systems so they will work as they were meant to.

But the problems don't stop with main-line freight derailments. Just a few weeks ago six people died when a bus filled with commuters collided with a VIA Rail train in Ottawa. Almost immediately, concern rose about the safety of Canada's more than 20 000 rail crossings.

Fortunately this is one area where action is being taken, as the government fast-tracks new grade-crossing regulations that have hitherto languished in a kind of consultative purgatory. With a commitment for new, tougher standards by the spring of 2014, safer crossings could be just over the horizon. If so, the Minister of Transport would be in a position to finally put the cap on a long and woeful tale that has now run more than 20 years.

The government has stepped up in other areas, too—issuing an emergency directive in July aimed at improving rail safety, especially when it comes to the transportation of dangerous goods.

Those are good steps, and, combined with what we learn from our own investigation in Lac-Mégantic, we hope that measures will be taken to ensure such an accident can't happen again.

The next accident, however, won't be exactly the same. The variables will inevitably be different. Prevention, therefore, now means taking a wider view, and adopting even broader safety measures. It will mean that corporate leaders and government will have to think hard about worst-case scenarios and question the way things have always been done. It will mean a proactive plan that not only meets but exceeds government regulations.

And so, as our railways and shippers ramp up plans to move even more oil by rail, let's hope everyone involved understands what's at stake: safety, yes—but also the trust of Canadians from coast to coast. Because it's clear that the people of Canada already know what the risks are. They understand that every day, hundreds of freight trains carry goods all across the country—and that those trains follow tracks that run along their rivers and lakes, and through their cities. It's also clear that they deserve more than “messaging” about safety being the top priority. They deserve action—and freedom from the fear that the next accident will happen in their city, at a railway crossing in their town, or even in their backyard.