NDP push for immediate rail safety study defeated, hours after Transport Canada hands down new rules

Workers comb through the debris after a train derailed causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil Tuesday, July 9, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson.
Workers comb through the debris after a train derailed causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil Tuesday, July 9, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson.

OTTAWA – An attempt to immediately review Canada’s rail safety rules was quashed Tuesday when Conservative and Liberal members of the House of Commons transport committee voted against an NDP motion.

All members agreed the rules should be studied – just not now.

“We are dealing with a very devastating situation here. A tragic accident in Lac-Megantic,” said Conservative MP Jeff Watson, who suggested MPs begin the study only after the Transportation Safety Board wraps its ongoing investigation.

“I think the government has from the beginning … demonstrated that not only we can, but we will act as emerging evidence supports it.”

The federal Transportation Safety Board, even as it is leading the investigation into the Lac-Megantic, Que. disaster, has already asked for two immediate changes in regulations governing rail traffic.  On Tuesday, Transport Canada introduced six emergency rail safety rules.

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Watch: 6 points from emergency directive outlined in Transportation safety committee hearing

MPs cut into their summer break Tuesday after NDP transport critic Olivia Chow – along with deputy critic Robert Aubin and fellow New Democrats Isabelle Morin and Mike Sullivan – wrote the committee clerk late last week requesting a series of meetings over the course of the summer with the aim of improving rail safety.

Committee members who voted against an immediate study – all six Conservatives and Liberal MP David McGuinty – repeatedly voiced concern that doing so could distract from the Transportation Safety Board investigation and chip away at its resources.

Chow had assured the committee their study wouldn’t impede the investigation. Her motion was defeated anyway.

Watch: New Democrat transportation critic Olivia Chow, who sits on the committee, said she hopes to at least find out why the government has not yet implemented years-old recommendations from the auditor general

“We want to do a comprehensive study,” Chow said after the meeting. “It’s unfortunate that the Liberals and the Conservatives want to take the summer off and not look at the critically important issues that the auditor general identified, and the Transportation Safety Board.”

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Hours before the MPs convened, Transport Canada announced it was immediately enacting six new rules – something the Conservatives said was a good step to deal with safety issues until the safety board’s investigation findings are made public and the committee begins its study.

The “emergency directive” prohibits trains carrying dangerous goods from being left unattended, and requires them to have at least two operators while on a main track.

Just over two weeks ago, a train carrying crude oil barrelled toward Lac-Megantic and exploded, killing dozens and levelling the downtown area. The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail car had been operating with only one engineer, who was not present when the train started heading down the tracks toward the town.

Other directives issued Tuesday include:

–          Take measures to guarantee that, by next week, all unattended locomotives on a main tracks are locked or otherwise protected from unauthorized entry.

–          Remove “controllers” from unattended locomotives on main tracks in order to prevent the trains from moving forward or backward.

–          Ensure companies follow their rules on hand brakes for any locomotive left unattended on a main track for more than one hour. (Currently, federal rules don’t specify how many hand brakes need to be applied for unattended trains. The chair of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, Ed Burkhardt, speculated the train’s engineer didn’t set enough before leaving.)

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–          Ensure automatic brakes are set in “full service position” and that independent brakes are applied for any locomotive attached to one or more cars left unattended for one hour or less on main tracks.

Still, Chow said there remain more safety recommendations that are outstanding – implementing additional back-up safety defences, storing voice recorders in locomotives and conducting safety assessments in some high-speed passengers railways, for example.

“These are recommendations the Transportation Safety Board have said over and over and over again, through the years,” Chow told the committee.

She also listed recommendations from the auditor general that have yet to be implemented, including putting a quality assurance program into action and clarifying who within Transport Canada is responsible for inspecting the transportation of dangerous goods.

Transport Canada said it is willing to work with industry members to find other ways of improving rail safety.

Its inspectors remain on the scene in Lac-Megantic.

Officials there are still determining whether Montreal, Maine & Atlantic broke any regulations.

Late Monday, meanwhile, the federal government announced a $60-million fund to help Lac-Megantic recover.

“I think the government can continue to act in the interim,” Watson said. “But I’m not sure the committee, at this particular time, without further findings from the Transportation Safety Board, should be undertaking the study at this point. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a study.”


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