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What happens when you ask Transport Canada about rail safety reforms

Plaster Rock
Fire burns on the horizon at the scene of a train derailment near Plaster Rock, N.B. on Wednesday Jan. 8, 2014. A freight train carrying crude oil and propane derailed and caught fire in a sparsely populated region of New Brunswick late Tuesday, leading to the evacuation of about two dozen nearby homes, authorities said. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Bateman

TORONTO – Last week’s train derailment in New Brunswick, following which cars of crude oil and propane burned for days, left many wanting more information on Transport Canada’s track record on rail safety.

After all, successive audits have recommended better oversight. And Transport Minister Lisa Raitt vowed changes in the wake of Lac-Megantic’s fatal derailment.

So how are they doing? Good luck finding out.

Lac-Megantic
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., July 6, 2013. (The Canadian Press / Paul Chiasson) THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Global News asked for a status report on each of a November auditor-general report’s 11 recommendations relating to oversight of rail safety after the auditor-general found “significant weaknesses.”

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Transport Canada said Jan. 9 it’s “still working on implementing the recommendations made by the Auditor-General report.”

Two other questions – regarding timelines for recommendations made in a December, 2011 audit and a dangerous goods transport risk analysis request for proposals – were left unanswered in the initial emailed response.

(On Tuesday night, the department said it had received seven proposals and will choose a winning bid “after due diligence by the Evaluation Committee to evaluate all proposals in accordance with the criteria stipulated in the RFP,” but didn’t specify a timeline).

‘Created whistleblower protection’

The department did, however, say the government had “created whistleblower protection for employees who raise safety concerns” between April 1, 2012 and March 2013.

So we asked how many whistleblowers have come forward since April, 2012.

‘Will create whistleblower protection’

The next day, an email said the government made amendments to the Railway Safety Act that came into force May 1, 2013 and that Transport Canada is “currently updating the Railway Safety Management System Regulations to include protection for railway employees who report safety violations to their companies.”

The wording in their list of measures taken to strengthen rail safety changed: Now, the government “will create whistleblower protection for employees who raise safety concerns.”

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Both responses are ‘correct’

Asked about the discrepancy, Transport Canada spokesperson Andrea Moritz said our confusion was probably a “question of interpretation.”

“We have amended the Railway Safety Act and through those amendments we now have the legal base to require companies to develop this whistleblower legislation,” she said. “We didn’t have that before. So the legal groundwork has been laid.”

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She explained the specific regulations haven’t yet been drafted, but categorized the previous email responses as “correct, depending on your interpretation.”

Moritz said the whistleblower protection they plan to draft will apply to rail company employees and not Transport Canada employees because a) Transport Canada employees already have whistleblower legislation in place as employees of the federal government and b) Transport Canada inspectors don’t need it.

“Our inspectors – their job is to find deficiencies, so they would not be penalized [for calling attention to safety concerns],” she said.

But to find how many “whistleblowers” have come forward at Transport Canada, she suggested checking with the Treasury Board, since that’s not a Transport Canada initiative.

READ MORE: Crude awakening: a Global News series on oil

Moritz didn’t know when the new whistleblower law will come into place or whether companies already have their own whistleblower protection in place now, and couldn’t specify which rail companies the protection will cover.

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And finally, we asked if there was any way to know how many whistleblowers have come forward at the companies up until now.

“You’d have to ask the individual companies because the first instance of reporting would likely be to them.”