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MPs unhappy with railway safety plan
Published: May 31, 2008
Source: Toronto Star
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OTTAWA–Transport Canada's move to give Canada's railways more responsibility to oversee their own safety has been marred by poor communications, a lack of resources and a lack of priority, a report by MPs says.

The conclusion raises questions about the federal government's plan to implement the same program for the aviation industry.

In a report released this week, MPs say they have "serious concerns" with the delays and implementation of the safety management system (SMS), a process that lets railways police their own safety activities.

In the report, MPs said the system, introduced in 2001, has been marred by "inadequate financial and human resources."

"More resources were required by Transport Canada to advance railroad safety – especially when it came to monitoring and auditing the implementation of SMS," said the report from the Commons committee on transport, infrastructure and communities.

In sharp language, the report cites a "critical failure" to communicate how safety issues should be addressed and how the safety system can be implemented.

The fact that many front-line rail workers have "limited knowledge" of the new system "makes it inconceivable how SMS can successfully be implemented," says the report, which was prompted by an increase in derailments and concern about the state of rail safety.

"These failures are hampering the development of a `safety culture' in the Canadian railroad industry.

"If more stringent oversight by Transport Canada had taken place, there might have been better results. To be at the stage we are today, after seven years, is clearly not acceptable."

Under the safety management system, rail firms were given greater responsibility to police their own safety.

Individual companies, rather than federal inspectors, have the job of ensuring their operations are safe and living up to regulations. Transport Canada has faced sharp criticism in recent months as it moves to implement the same program for the aviation industry.

Despite the report's tough talk, its findings don't go far enough for New Democrat MP Brian Masse (Windsor West), who called SMS an "abysmal failure."

"The lack of regulation and the culture of basically a hands-off policy by the Liberals and Conservatives on this has really run our railroad system into a rut," said Masse, his party's transport critic and a committee member.

"I'm saying we've got to back up and put in stronger regulatory penalties and oversight."

A Transport Canada official said yesterday that an advisory council on railway safety created by the government earlier this year would likely review the findings. SMS was meant to create an "additional layer" of safety, he said.

Many railway workers remain in the dark about the safety management program, even though it was introduced in 2001, said William Brehl, president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference Maintenance of Way Employees Division, which represents more than 4,000 workers at Canadian Pacific Railway, and 24 short line railroads.

When federal inspectors are reduced to reviewing safety audits sent in by the rail companies instead of conducting the inspections themselves, "there's a lot that can be missed," he said.

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