Getting on track: the Auditor-General and railway safety

Commentary, Transportation, Mary-Jane Bennett

According to Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s recently released Fall Report, “significant weaknesses” continue at Transport Canada. These weaknesses have been flagged for some time, dating back a dozen years to when the federal government adopted a new rail safety regime, known as safety management system, or SMS.

Under SMS, railways take an active role in setting safety standards. This does not mean, as some claim, that railways are self-regulating or given a free rein to cut corners. Ottawa not only maintains exclusive authority over crossing safety and the construction (or alteration) of infrastructure, it also has the right to supersede any railway proposal impacting safety.

Each federal railway is required to identify its specific safety risks in operational or technological matters, such as fatigue management, crew size, locomotive design and track. Each then proposes its whole system safety protocol to Ottawa. These protocols become rules once approved by the Minister of Transport. New rules or regulations on rail safety can be issued at any time by Ottawa. Following the rail disaster at Lac-Mégantic, for example, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt enhanced requirements on handbrakes. Further, locomotives were barred from being left unattended as were so-called “one-man” rail operations.

Where things completely collapse is in the transportation of dangerous goods. The Auditor General’s 2011 report of Transport Canada’s dangerous goods directorate outlined serious and hair-raising lapses by both the government and shippers in rail transportation. First, Transport Canada doesn’t appear to know who is shipping dangerous goods – even explosives, like dynamite; toxins, like chlorine; or flammable gases, like propane. Nor do they know what exactly is in the rail cars and where they are being routed. Their inspectors are under-trained, their inspections poorly designed, follow-up is lacking, and sanctions are missing.

Shippers, meanwhile, mandated by the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act to have their Emergency Response plans to cover a spill or accident approved before they can even offer dangerous goods for transport, are operating without final approval in about half the cases. Without this critical information, those handling the goods on a day-to-day basis and first responders in a disaster face increased risk of life or injury. The audit found that shippers are complying with shipping documents, training certificates, labelling and placarding about 50% of the time. Following the explosion and massive fireballs at Lac-Mégantic, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board investigators found that oil had been mislabelled and sent down the rails blindly and without regard to whether or not it was potentially volatile.  This prompted Ottawa to order the testing of any crude being sent by rail, a requirement which has since been flouted by shippers. 

Clearly, the shipment of dangerous goods requires a complete turn-around, but what about rail systems generally?  The Auditor-General found that although the focus should be on the audit of railway safety systems, Transport Canada continues to carry out tens of thousands of inspections ignoring in-depth safety audits. The Auditor-General urged Transport Canada to categorize railways based on risk. Those with well-functioning safety management systems require less intensive oversight.

By last week Transport Canada responded with the launch of a risk analysis in the transportation of dangerous goods

Although SMS is an imperfect system, the news isn’t all bad. Train accident rates have decreased in the last decade. The railway industry has made significant scientific and technological strides to improve safety. Still, safety standards alone won’t save lives. To function, they require robust supervision.

The U.S. faced similar conditions in the 1990s when inspections “could not provide assurance that railroads are operating safely” according to a 1990 Report to Congress.

The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) made several key changes.  The FRA was divided into five “inspection disciplines”: track, operating practices, hazardous materials, signals and locomotive power/equipment. Next, the FRA tackled crossing safety (where most accidents occur) and “human error” issues, such as fatigue, also a major cause of accidents. In 1996, it established the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee to develop new regulations.

Most importantly, the FRA implemented a risk approach to rail safety. That meant inspectors focused on worst offenders, using accident and mileage data to determine at-risk rail lines.  .

Earlier this year, the U.S. established three priority safety areas: making mandatory a communications system designed to prevent accidents caused by human error, replacing hazardous grade crossings and examining the impact of flooding, rockslides, avalanche hazards and weather extremes on rail operations.

In Canada, we’re still foot dragging on how to audit safety. “Many of the weaknesses we found in Transport Canada” claimed the Report, “were identified more than five years ago and have yet to be fixed.” It’s time to get on track and focus on the big issues. Establishing priority safety areas is a must.