Transport Canada’s rail safety oversight under fire

The federal watchdog says key safety concerns remain unaddressed

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

A recent report from the office says the federal institution tasked with regulating transport 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 rolling 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.

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Increased rail traffic is contributing to the accidents, which were 17 per cent 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 per cent,” the report notes “This surge in train traffic means more wear and tear on tracks, which can pose additional safety risks.”

The audit was done as a followup 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.

Now the auditor says 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.

Omar Alghabra, Canada’s minister of transport, responded to a question about the report in the House of Commons on Feb. 26, saying he welcomed it.

“The auditor general’s report has demonstrated that Transport Canada has made important and meaningful changes, including to track maintenance, increasing the number of inspections and improving fatigue management for workers. Our department is already working to address all of the recommendations,” he said.

About the author

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D.C. Fraser

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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