Editorial: Focus needed to improve rail safety

This drone photo taken by the OPP shows the extent of the damage immediately following the collision of CN trains 149 and 532 on September 2, 2021. (Supplied/OPP photo via TSB)

For the past two weeks, The Leader has reported on the results of the Transportation Safety Board’s two-and-a-half year investigation into a head-on collision of two Canadian National freight trains in Prescott. One of the key findings of the report was the Rail Traffic Controller was alleged to be intoxicated on the job, and provided clearance for one train to proceed when another was on the same track.

Since the release of the investigation, CN and the union which represents RTCs – Teamsters Canada – have pointed fingers at each other regarding the collision’s causes – while Transport Canada is reviewing the findings of the investigation and not offering any action.

The line where this collision occurred on is the busiest railway line in Canada connecting Toronto to Montréal. Over 25 VIA Rail passenger trains and CN freight trains use this line daily. CN moves thousands of rail cars of ethanol, oil, and other toxic chemicals on this line every day; VIA transports thousands of passengers daily. The physical carnage of two freight trains colliding head-on at 37 miles-per-hour resulted in three people injured and millions of dollars in damage to equipment and property. VIA operates at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. Had that collision involved a passenger train – at any speed – it would have had far more catastrophic and dire results.

The TSB investigation highlighted that many of the switches that direct trains on and off this line are manually operated and lack any form of safety lock to prevent trains from being routed incorrectly. This relies on RTCs using verbal confirmation that trains have passed a certain checkpoint, and to not make mistakes.

Safety deficiencies do not excuse the lack of judgment to use alcohol prior to, or during, work hours. A responsible employee should have made safety the priority and not worked when they had been allegedly drinking. There is plenty of blame to be shared.

CN removed many of the switch lock sensors on that line when it upgraded its signal systems over 15 years ago. The company only added new sensors to the area where the derailment occurred after the collision site was repaired. Had those sensors been in place, the RTC – intoxicated or not – would not have been able to route the two trains on to the same line. CN would not answer questions about safety on the line.

Transport Canada also shares blame in this collision for failing to mandate railroads adopt more stringent safety technology. Switch sensors are basic technology that has existed for nearly a century. The United States Federal Railroad Administration forced railroads in that country to update train control and safety solutions. Canada is not without its share of devastating rail-related tragedies, yet Transport Canada only says it is investigating.

Millions of Ontarians live along this rail line and the potential for another major disaster like in Lac Mégantic, Quebec or East Palestine, Ohio is too high not to prioritize rail safety. The technology exists. When will the will to implement it?

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