A new report on the Lac-Mégantic train disaster raises questions about the federal government’s strategy of encouraging self-regulation within the rail industry.
Not only does the report question the devolution of regulatory power over rail safety, it questions the judgment of Transport Canada and the department’s rejection of critical recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board — recommendations that, in the hindsight of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, could have saved lives.
“It is important to keep the spotlight on the flawed self-regulation approach that lies at the heart of the regulatory failure responsible for Lac-Mégantic. The government needs to take back authority ceded to corporations,” announced Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and author of the October 2013 report The Lac-Mégantic Disaster - Where Does the Buck Stop?
Details of the July 6, 2013 derailment have already become etched in the Canadian psyche. Forty-seven people died when the runaway train belonging to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway crashed and exploded in the downtown core of the small Quebec town. The driverless train — thought to have been safely parked — carried millions of litres of oil that spilled over the local landscape.
But Campbell is more concerned with what led up to the Lac-Mégantic disaster.
Initially, Campbell points to the introduction of the Railway Safety Management System Regulations (SOR/2001-37) under the Railway Safety Act. The change allowed Canadian rail companies to implement their own safety plans, and essentially their own standards, contingent on federal approval.
Over the last three decades, the federal government has devolved more and more power to companies, the report states. The most telling example of this trend is the federal government’s Cabinet Directive on Regulatory Management (CDRM), which took effect in late 2012. Not only does it promote non-regulatory options such as self-regulation, it imposes a “one-for-one” rule, meaning departments must try to repeal an existing regulation before introducing a new one.
EcoLog News asked Transport Canada about the department’s evolving strategy of ceding authority to industry, however, the department isn’t saying much, at least until more official channels have had time to investigate Lac-Mégantic, and consider any elements that may have contributed to the disaster.
“If [rail safety] regulations are not followed, we will not hesitate to take whatever course of action is available to us,” a spokesperson for Transport Canada told EcoLog News.
The department refused to speak directly to the potential effects of self-regulation.
The CCPA report is critical of Transport Canada’s decisions on a number of fronts. It examines concerns raised by the Transportation Safety Board in the early 1990s, when the Board warned Transport Canada about its “vague” regulations that address securing brakes, as well as issues surrounding leaving trains unlocked and unattended, all factors at the Lac-Mégantic disaster.
Transport Canada also refused to act on the Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation to adopt fail-safe measures for stopping trains automatically. The CCPA report suggests that industry insists automation is unnecessary given its cost and safety record.
In addition to questions surrounding funding cuts to rail safety at Transport Canada, Campbell is critical of a decision made by the department leading up to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. MMA had made a request to Transport Canada to be exempted from the required two-person crew. When the department granted the request, it was one of only two granted to a freight railway in Canada, and was issued despite alleged objections from the union representing the railway’s workers, the report states.
MMA also has a history of non-compliance, the CCPA report notes.
“Barring new evidence, it seems MMA, an admittedly poor performer compared to other companies, simply took advantage of the freedom granted by the regulatory system,” Campbell said in a statement following the release of the report on October 22, 2013.
The CCPA report warns that close to 275,000 barrels of oil per day are now being transported by rail in Canada. This is an increase of “almost nothing five years ago,” the report states.
“Great for its bottom line, the rail industry has met this spectacular surge in demand, for the most part, using tanker cars that were not built for carrying hazardous materials,” wrote Campbell.
As the new CCPA report was released, Minister of Transport, Lisa Raitt, met with the Advisory Council on Railway Safety. The Council provides a forum for railway safety issues and the development and assessment of changes to the Railway Safety Act regulatory framework.
“I am convinced that, by working together, we will strengthen both the safety of our rail system and the role it will play in Canada’s future," Raitt said in an announcement following the October 22, 2013 meeting in Ottawa.
While Raitt has implemented a number of emergency directives to railway companies following the crash, she asked the Council to consider the following: