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Safety issue divides rail family
Published: January 10, 2008
Source: Toronto Star - Greg Gormick
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If you want to make a railroader howl, criticize their railway's safety record.

I've never met a good one who advocates skimping on safety to boost the bottom line. That's the railway culture. At Canadian Pacific, this is reflected in its cardinal rule: "No job on our railway will ever be so important that we can't take the time to do it safely."

CP employees will tell you they take pride in the safety improvements resulting from that management-endorsed rule. Some of them will also tell you they're currently concerned about their colleagues at another railway, which they always refer to as Brand X. It has been having trouble of late: Five freight derailments in Northern Ontario, another on the prairies and a lengthy list of high-profile accidents over the last three years.

This is making some CP folks hotter than a dining car kitchen at mealtime not that they'll say anything for publication. As in most professions, it's a point of honour that one railroader never publicly criticizes another, even a competitor. When trouble pulls in, the railway family bands together for the good of railroading. But at a time when they're promoting rail as the safe, efficient and environmentally wise route to the future, there is much consternation inside the family. The CP crowd feels they are getting tarred with Brand X's safety brush.

This isn't just about safety for one railway's sake. Our rail system is an interconnected web of steel that is neighbour to millions of Canadians. They must all be safe if they are going to collectively earn the right to move the goods that stoke our country's firebox. CP went through its own ordeal-by-fire with the 1979 Mississauga derailment and has had a few reminders since. It knows the price you pay for letting the safety culture slip.

The public does have a say in this. We have oversight through Transport Canada's Rail Safety Directorate and it has voiced its concerns about Brand X's performance.

In 2006, the directorate produced an exhaustive report on the situation. Because of its complex nature, I think it went over the heads of most non-railroaders. But it contains one easy-to-understand finding that is disturbing.

While Brand X managers said they made safety a priority, the investigators reported "this contrasts with the view of many employees and some front-line supervisors interviewed, who report that they feel pressured productivity, workload, fear of discipline to get the job done, which could compromise safe railway operations."

The directorate reported Brand X was making progress in correcting many of the physical problems coupled to this string of accidents. But progress was lacking on the railway's safety culture improvement initiatives.

Rail safety is not just a matter of bandaging your physical flaws with cash. If management and labour aren't working harmoniously to safely move huge volumes of freight with heavy equipment over tough terrain, all your spending goes for naught. Above all, the people who make the trains roll need to believe the front office is committed to a culture of safety first and stockholder dividends second. History has proved the safest railway is also the most profitable.

It appears our government watchdogs may need to hop aboard Brand X again. They should also take along copies of that CP safety policy. Brand X executives should be told these aren't just words to be tacked up on the roundhouse wall; they must become everyone's culture, management included.

Nothing would please CP employees more one competitive railroader to another.


Greg Gormick is a Toronto transportation writer who served on the Minister of Transport's Steering Committee on a Railway Safety Act in 1986.


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