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Safeguarding a nation's rail safety—and its trust

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

This article was published in the April 7, 2014, edition of the Hill Times.

Last July, a train carrying crude oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where forty-seven people were killed. The subsequent public outcry has been nothing less than seismic: "We don't want another Mégantic," people have said as they flooded call-in shows and OpEd pages across the country. "We want to know what's being shipped through our towns, too, and we want proof that it's being done safely."

Their anxiety is understandable, and unfortunately it has only grown with each new accident that hits the front page: In November, when a train derailed in rural Alabama, spilling crude oil and resulting in a huge fireball. A month later, when fires from derailed tank cars forced residents from their homes in North Dakota. And then in January, when more than a dozen tank cars derailed and caught fire near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick.

It's no exaggeration to say that the safety of our rail network has emerged as one of the biggest issues facing Canada's transportation industry, nor is it inaccurate to point out that there has been an erosion of public trust.

At the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, we work hard to earn the public's trust—and to be worthy of it. When tragedy strikes we seek to find out what happened, and why, so that steps can be taken to prevent it from happening again. And when what we learn needs to be shared right away, we don't wait for the release of a final report.

Such was the case for Lac-Mégantic. Very early on, TSB investigators identified important safety issues and communicated them to regulators. Later, in January, we released a trio of recommendations aimed not just at strengthening the tank cars that carry so many flammable liquids, but at making sure railway companies conduct route planning and analysis, and follow up with risk assessments, so that the lines along which dangerous goods travel are as safe as they can be. Moreover, we also urged the creation of emergency response plans, so that communities will be prepared for the worst.

All of these actions are aimed at a single goal—to advance transportation safety. We're an independent agency, objective and impartial, so when concrete steps have been taken to improve safety, we're more than happy to say so. But if not enough has been done, we'll say that, too.

Later this month we will receive the Minister of Transport's response to our three Lac-Mégantic recommendations, and we are hopeful that measures can soon be put in place to reduce the risks we have found so far. What happens after that is uncertain, but one thing is sure: this issue is by no means limited to Canada. All across North America, the numbers are rising, from just over 10,000 carloads of crude oil five years ago, to roughly half a million in 2013. Our networks, moreover, are intertwined with the United States—which is why, when we issued our recommendations in January, we did so in coordination with the NTSB. This unprecedented move helped us send a clear and unified message: if companies plan to continue shipping oil by rail, and if they plan to do so in ever-increasing volumes between our two countries, then this must be done safely.

Tragedy has a way of putting things in focus, often painfully so. The people of Lac- Mégantic know all too well what the stakes are—and now, in the wake of this and other derailments across the continent, so do other communities. That means the rules for responding have changed. Today, the public is demanding more than promises; they want action.

To their credit, Canada's railways and the Minister of Transport seem very aware of this, and they have started taking action to begin addressing some of the risks. Let's hope that trend continues, because a nation's safety, like its trust, is no small thing. It must be developed, it must be nurtured, and it must be protected—day by day, and year by year. It's what we at the TSB have always done, and it's what we'll always do. Our investigation is still far from complete—we still have months to go before we release our final report—but we have a team of experts dedicated solely to this investigation, and they will continue until the job is done. You have my word on that.