Royal Commission into Railway Safety is Needed

(as published in today’s Sherbrooke Record newspaper)
by Jack Locke

If Canada is to prevent another Lac-Mégantic apocalypse, we had better take note of our federal Auditor General’s latest report.

The Auditor General’s Fall 2013 report has done a fine job in pointing to some of the troubles which I have been writing about for the past 3 years: Railway Safety, or the lack thereof.

And while Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, hasn’t exactly said it, Canada’s railways have been operating on luck and prayers for many years. But, as Lac-Mégantic’s tragedy shows, our luck has run out.

“Despite the fact that federal railways were required 12 years ago to implement safety management systems for managing their safety risks and complying with safety requirements, Transport Canada has yet to establish an audit approach that provides a minimum level of assurance
that federal railways have done so,” says the auditor’s report.

Before the government once again repeats the old saw, “We are Tough on Crime,” they need to get tough on railways.

After Montreal-area teens Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet, and Ricardo Conesa were killed in the early morning hours of October 31, 2010 after being struck by a VIA Rail passenger train, I took an active interest in railway safety. Needless to say, at nearly every turn I saw government turning a blind eye towards railway safety and protecting Canadians.

Whether it was being intimidated by Montreal Police or being stymied by VIA Rail’s refusal to disclose documents, or having letters to 3 different federal Ministers of Transport being ignored, I came to the conclusion that the system in place for railway safety was broken. And maybe that is the way the current government wants it–they want economic action and not sustainable, safe development.

The proof of my theory came on May 17, 2012, when the Harper
Government decided to remove the responsibility for railway safety from the companies that run the trains. A vital principle of railway safety was removed from the Railway Safety Act.

“To recognize the responsibility of railway companies in ensuring the safety of their operations,” was deleted from the law.

So, to read the Auditor General’s damning critique of the government and their oversight of railway safety is not surprising.

“The guidance and tools provided to inspectors for assessing federal railways’ safety management systems are missing many key elements. For example, they contain few requirements to help inspectors plan, conduct, and conclude on audits and inspections, and for following up on findings. This makes it difficult for Transport Canada to ensure that its inspections and audits are effective in determining whether railways are taking corrective actions where necessary. Lastly,Transport Canada does not have a quality assurance plan to continuously improve its oversight of rail safety,” writes the Auditor General.

Just what then is the government doing? Though the government claims their wheels are turning, they are not in a direction in which we should be proud.

My 16-part blog series, the Turcot Train Tragedy, highlighted some key concerns with one incident of train dangers that were not being addressed. But the wide plethora of concerns that exist along the 44,000 kilometres of track that criss-cross our nation are likewise being ignored.

The solution is not to put a train on the new $10 bill. Clearly, there needs to be a Royal Commission into railway safety, one that reviews all of what the Auditor General has identified, and more.

How many more railway deaths are we to accept before our government does right? — Does the right thing by calling a wide review into railway safety.

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