Canada's troubled rail industry

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THOMSON: It was the worst rail disaster in Canadian history. But a year after Lac-Megantic, new data shows rail accidents involving dangerous goods are up across the country. This, despite government pledges to boost safety on the tracks.

Joining us is the president of the advocacy group, Transport Action Ontario, Peter Miasek.

Thank you for coming in to talk about this.

MIASEK: Thank you.

THOMSON: So, this is not what people want to hear. Because in the aftermath of that accident we saw the federal government saying we're going to tighten these regulations, we're going to develop better emergency responses, assistance programs, but we're going to try to make it safer on the rails. The data is showing there has been more accidents than there had been even in the previous year since those new regulations were put in place.

MIASEK: Yes, that's true, Bev. I think the data needs a little more analysis than we've seen to date. My suspicion is that rail movements are up, certainly of dangerous goods. We keep hearing about all the extra crude that the US is producing that was being shipped to our refineries. So, it's possible if you normalize the dangerous-goods incidents by the number of rail movements, that the trend really isn't up. It's certainly not a good sign. In our mind, it points to one of the significant issues we have in our Canadian rail system.

And the point I wanted to make is that most of these incidents, about 80 percent of them, are on the non-main lines. It's the secondary lines that form a big part of our network. And these are the ones that we're concerned that the railways have not been adequately maintaining many of these.

THOMSON: So, the maintenance budgets. I mean, they go after the main lines first.


THOMSON: And then they get to the non-main lines which I guess the money isn't there to the same degree.

MIASEK: The rail industry has been having a lot of challenges competing with the trucking industry. In our view, trucking is being subsidized by being able to run on public highways. They do pay extra licence fees but not enough to cover the cost of maintenance, etc. The rail industry has to pay for the full maintenance of their infrastructure. And it's been a challenge against trucking.

So, as there's not enough cash in the system they've been cutting back. They've either been abandoning the branch lines or they have been cutting back on the maintenance of them. There's a lot of go-slow orders on these branch lines. All of which leads to a higher incidence of accidents, which I think the data may well show.

It does require more analysis, though. It's noteworthy 80 percent of these incidents that occurred in this analysis are on the non-main lines.

THOMSON: What about the kinds of things that they put in place, they implemented after Megantic? Like, you won't be able to have one crew person operating a train that has dangerous goods on it. The retrofit of some of the cars that were being used to transport this crude. What about those implementations? In your opinion, has it helped?

MIASEK: Yes, it's helped. But those are only small steps to what we think is a lot more work that needs to be done.

Our rail industry in Canada, which was our national dream, part of the formation of our country back in the 1800s, is in trouble. In addition to the safety issues that we have been talking about and the problems with the branch lines or the secondary lines I was talking about, we've obviously got a capacity issue in our system. The rail companies don't have the surge capacity to pick up extra volumes of grain that we're generating the last year in Western Canada.

And then the fourth issue we have in our rail system is just the downsizing of the passenger side of things. Via Rail Canada has been forced to downsize. These are in our opinion all a symptom of a lack of money in the system due to the inability to compete with subsidized trucking.

Now, our American colleagues faced the same dilemma in the 1970s. They were having safety issues. Their passenger rail was in deep trouble. They could meet capacity --

THOMSON: And part of that was their budget as well.

MIASEK: Yes, absolutely. So, they formed what are called public-private partnerships where the federal government, the state governments and the railways formed a partnership and jointly invested in improving the rail system. Canada hasn't taken that step yet, but we strongly think that's needed.

THOMSON: How vulnerable do you think the rail system is in Canada at this point?

MIASEK: I think it's very vulnerable. Because of the secondary-line shutdowns -- the best example in Toronto, where I live, all shipments from Eastern Canada to Western Canada, or the other way around, go right through the central part of Toronto, past two nuclear plants. The branch lines, the secondary lines, have all been shut down. So, the crude oil that's moving from North Dakota to Brunswick, or wherever, comes right through Toronto. It's a very vulnerable situation.

As I say, we're going through Canada's largest metropolis, past two nuclear plants, past all sorts of other high-risk operations. One incident, and our whole rail system will be shut down. We need more money in the system to build redundancy.

THOMSON: Certainly federally there's been an effort taken to make these measures better. But also a promise to make sure that these things don't happen again in the future. Do you see anything within the words of either the federal transport minister or Transport Canada that more money will be put into these systems?

MIASEK: They're not at that stage yet. But I am encouraged by one fact. The transport minister, Lisa Raitt, has recently announced a re-examination of the Canada Transportation Act one year ahead of schedule, which is in our mind a good sign.


MIASEK: There's an eminent panel of Canadians being tasked to look at this. And I'm sure this question will come up. Certainly our group intends to make submissions to this panel along these lines.

THOMSON: Okay. Peter Miasek, thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

MIASEK: My pleasure, Bev. Thank you.

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