August 24, 2016
The July 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, in which 47 residents of the town were killed, drew widespread attention to the issue of the transportation of dangerous goods by rail. This weekend's accident on the CP Rail line through central Toronto put the question of railway safety back on the public agenda. Fortunately, the consequences of Sunday’s accident were limited to a spill of diesel fuel. Given the types of cargo routinely carried on the line, the results could have been much more serious.
The re-routing of trains carrying dangerous goods away from the CP mainline through mid-town Toronto, as has been suggested by many residents and community groups, is a proposal that deserves serious consideration. It may however, be difficult to implement in the short term. That said, many other immediate steps can be taken to reduce the risks of a serious accident.
As with all vehicle accidents, speed is a major contributing factor to the seriousness derailments and collisions. Further speed reductions should be adopted for dangerous goods carrying trains moving through urban and other densely populated areas. In addition, Transport Canada’s inspections and field oversight of rail operations in urban areas should be intensified. The phase-out of older-type tank cars, frequently used to carry dangerous goods, is currently scheduled not to be completed in until 2025. That process should be accelerated.
In the longer term, the ongoing pattern of railway accidents involving dangerous goods continues to raise questions about Transport Canada's overall approach to its role as a safety regulator. Although a number of technical changes to railway operating requirements have been made by the Conservative and Liberal governments since the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the core features of the regulatory system that was in place at the time of the catastrophe remain. Canada continues to rely on what is a largely self-regulatory system based on company developed and implemented safety management system (SMS) plans.
Transport Canada’s regulatory oversight activities have become increasingly focussed on ‘paper’ inspections of the contents of these plans as opposed to inspections and oversight of actual railway operations. The Transportation Safety Board, the Auditor General of Canada, and Transport Canada's own employees have all expressed concern that reviews of the paper SMS plans have become a serious distraction and diversion of limited resources away from more direct oversight of transportation operations.
The centrality of the SMS plans to Transport Canada’s oversight regime requires serious reconsideration. Other means through which railway operators can be prompted to develop internal management systems to ensure safe operations, need to be considered.
The personal liability of company officers and directors for accidents and regulatory violations under the Railway Safety Act, could, for example, be greatly expanded. The introduction of such provisions into environmental laws over the past three decades has led to the widespread adoption and implementation of company environmental management systems. A similar outcome in the transportation case could allow Transport Canada’s limited resources to be focussed on active oversight and inspection of railway operations in the field.
Such an approach needs to be complemented with a much more robust approach to the enforcement of railway operating rules and requirements than has been the case in the past. Transport Canada’s enforcement track record under the Railway Safety Act has been hopelessly weak. There were only eight successful prosecutions under the act in the fifteen years before the Lac-Mégantic accident.
There have also been long-standing requests for better access to information regarding the movement of dangerous goods by rail through cities and towns from residents and municipal leaders. While there are legitimate security concerns associated with the public release of information regarding the dangerous goods carried by specific trains in real time, there is no case for not releasing information to the public on the types and quantities of materials being carried through municipalities on a monthly or quarterly basis. Doing so would improve accountability and strengthen the ability of municipalities to plan for emergencies.
With respect to more technical issues, Transport Canada is falling behind the US Department of Transportation in its responses to the series of accident that have occurred across North American since emergence of the large-scale transportation of crude oil by rail at the beginning of this decade. The introduction of positive train control, and electronic train braking systems, have been highlighted as two such areas where Transport Canada needs to move more quickly.
While the Sunday morning derailment near Dupont and Spadina in Toronto was of very limited immediate consequences, it served as an important reminder of the unfinished business of the reform of Canada’s regulatory system for railway safety. The ball is now very much in transport minister Marc Garneau’s court to take both immediate and longer term actions to reform the system to ensure the safety of Canadians.
Mark Winfield is a Professor of Environmental Studies at York University. He has written extensive on railway safety since the Lac-Mégantic disaster. His article “The Lac- Mégantic Disaster and Transport Canada’s Safety Management System (SMS) Model: Implications for Reflexive Regulatory Regimes” was published in the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice this week.