Rail safety under scrutiny

Canada’s auditor general is criticizing Transport Canada for lack of safety oversight on railroads.

A Feb. 25 report from the office says the federal institution tasked with regulating transportation has made important improvements to safety and inspections, but “it did not assess whether its oversight activities improved rail safety.”

More than $328 billion worth of goods are carried on railroads across the country each year.

According to the auditor general, there were 1,245 rail accidents in 2019, up from 1,169 in 2018. Accidents include derailments and collisions, and most happen at low speeds within train yards.

Increased rail traffic is contributing to the accidents, which were 17 percent higher in 2019 than the previous 10-year average.

“In terms of goods transported, fuel oils and crude petroleum recorded a significant increase by weight from 2017 to 2018 of more than 45 percent,” the report noted. “This surge in train traffic means more wear and tear on tracks, which can pose additional safety risks.”

The audit was done as a follow-up to a 2013 report into rail safety. It found that despite progress over the previous 20 years, “a number of long-standing and important safety issues remain, including trespassing, grade crossings, concerns about the environment, the collection of data on safety performance from federal railways, and the implementation and oversight of safety management systems.”

Several specific recommendations were made by the auditor to Transport Canada at that time.

The auditor said the department continues to make progress but still “has not assessed the effectiveness of the railways’ safety management systems — despite the many reports over the last 14 years recommending that Transport Canada audit and assess these systems.”

Karen Hogan, Canada’s auditor general, said it “remains crucial” to determine if the efforts of Transport Canada to improve safety are having a positive impact.

“I am very concerned that while Transport Canada has taken some actions to address our recommendations, eight years after our last audit, there is still much left to do to improve the oversight of rail safety in Canada,” she said.

Transport Canada is responsible for overseeing safety requirements for all federally regulated railway companies. There are 75 railway companies and more than 45,000 kilometres of railway tracks in Canada subject to Transport Canada’s oversight and enforcement.

These railway companies include federal companies operating across provincial or international borders and local railway companies operating on federally regulated tracks.

Transport minister Omar Alghabra said he welcomed the auditor general’s report.

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