Canada’s railways suffered some high-profile and unfortunate accidents last year, most notably the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic. As a result, Canadians are justifiably concerned with railway safety. Several initiatives to improve safety, transparency and response are underway—many of which pre-date Lac-Mégantic, and other efforts have been accelerated since then.
The railway industry has seen steadily declining accident rates over the past 12 years, thanks to a combination of profitable companies investing in their network; a robust regulatory system; safety management systems (SMS) required by law and the introduction of safety culture. It’s unfortunate that, despite a strong overall track record, some critics choose to focus only on high-profile accidents and to draw broad-based conclusions about the industry and the regulatory framework.
One such argument, currently perpetuated by a major labour group, is to portray railway safety in Canada as a case of “self-regulation.” This argument has been adopted by some Members of Parliament, even though the Railway Safety Act passed unanimously in the House of Commons on May 1, 2012. The act provides for a robust regime of regulatory inspections, oversight, compliance, and enforcement actions, including recently-enhanced administrative monetary penalties against companies and individuals for violations of designated provisions of the Act. According to Transport Canada, some 30,000 inspections of railway operations occurred in 2012.
Railways in Canada must also follow legislation such as the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Railways have to comply with dozens of regulations and hundreds of prescriptive rules. In parallel with this regulatory regime, each company must have its own SMS, with the attendant focus on proactive risk assessment and management, employee involvement, audit, and extensive training to promote a sound safety culture. Under a company’s SMS, freight railways undertake hundreds of thousands of inspections of their infrastructure and equipment every year.
Labour groups often advocate for policies and approaches that will secure union employment, as they should. But they bristle when railways advocate for approaches that use a combination of technologies and practices within a safety management system if they think it will threaten their jobs. For Members of Parliament, it is not about picking sides. Rather, it is about understanding that all such positions must be made within a risk assessment framework and supported by evidence. In the end, the regulator - Transport Canada, has the final say.
The Canadian railway industry has a deeply embedded safety culture where continuous improvement, with as many layers of protection and safeguards as possible, is the goal. For many years, Canada’s Rail Industry had been working collaboratively with stakeholders on outstanding Transportation Safety Board (TSB) Recommendations and Watch List items. The industry’s success rate at clearing TSB recommendations stands at 90 per cent. A pretty good record, but we can and will improve further.
This is in addition to the significant and ongoing investments in plant, equipment, safety technology, training, and process improvement that also increase safety. We are fortunate in Canada to have successful, profitable railway companies that, on average, spend some 20 per cent of revenues annually on maintaining their infrastructure. Since 2008, we have spent $16-billion on capital projects to strengthen the integrity of our infrastructure. This is a key reason that Canadian National and Canadian Pacific are the two safest railroads in North America.
When looking at all the facts, it is clear that railways are accountable and are incented to continuously improve their safety. Given more than a decade of steady improvement, leading to world-leading safety performance, we can reasonably assert that the regulatory framework is working properly. But, of course, more can, and must be done on all fronts to further improve safety.
The rail industry is responding proactively and responsibly to the Lac-Mégantic accident. This includes reviewing all rule changes; redoubling efforts for emergency preparedness and first responder training; making a commitment to safety culture a requirement for membership in the Railway Association of Canada and working with stakeholders and technology providers to deploy new safety approaches such as in-cab audio and video recording systems (also a TSB recommendation).
The federal government acted quickly by issuing new directives and applying new rules specifically related to that accident. In the Speech From the Throne, the government announced it would require shippers and railways to carry additional insurance. Together, railways and regulators have taken a comprehensive view on ways to achieve further safety improvements, including train securement practices, information sharing with communities and enhanced emergency response preparedness. Rail industry partners, including producers and transloaders, are also taking steps to ensure safe loading and unloading procedures and to properly identify dangerous goods for risks and hazards.
On the regulatory front, an important next step is to address the safety of the DOT 111 tank cars used to move flammable products such as crude oil and ethanol. The question of tank car integrity is central, and the rail industry is advocating the gradual phasing out of the older DOT-111 tank cars and adoption of stronger standards for new tank cars built in the future. Tank car manufacturers, customers and regulators can develop a plan to phase out older cars in a reasonable timeframe. There are currently more than 50,000 newer standard tank cars on order and another 30,000 in service. With the phase out of older cars, a growing fleet of new tank cars and increased safety measures, hazardous commodities can be moved with less risk.
Rail safety is understandably under intense scrutiny as a result of the Lac-Mégantic accident. Railways are working within a proven, modern regulatory safety framework to improve safety, to communicate risks and prepare for emergencies. Nothing is more important to Canada’s railways than operating safely. Why? Three basic reasons: it’s the law; it’s a moral obligation we have to our employees, the communities through which we operate, our customers and the environment; and, finally, it’s the right way to run our business.
President and CEO
The Railway Association of Canada
For background on Canadian rail safety click here.
To read more Commentary click here.
Michael Bourque, President and CEO RAC
Rail Service is on the Right Track
The Hon. Denis Lebel, P.C., M.P., Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the regions of Quebec, released the Final Report of the Facilitator of the Rail Freight Service Review on June 22, 2012 (The Dinning Report). (click here for PDF of full text)
Canada’s railways rank among the best
A Leger poll taken earlier this year highlights some surprising attitudes by Canadians about freight rail. It seems a great majority of Canadians (87%) would support the government providing funding for rail. However, the freight rail industry is not asking the government for such subsidies, nor does it receive any today. Read the full comment published in The Financial Post by clicking here.
CTV News Channel
Michael had a chat with Dan Matheson, co-host of Morning Express, on the resurgence of Canada's Rail sector.
Click here to watch the video.
Rail is booming in Canada
CBC Newsworld - The Lang and O'Leary Exchange
Michael discussed the rail sector's growing momentum on CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange. To view the interview