Railway disputes union's concerns over
Published: October 7th 2008
Source: Darcy Henton, The Edmonton Journal
Printer friendly version
a matter of time before damage leads to train derailment, union official
Canadian Pacific Railway is brushing aside concerns about track safety
problems they fear could lead to train derailments, injuries and deaths,
union officials warn.
Concerns they have raised about joint bars being damaged by passing
trains have fallen on deaf ears, they say, and failure to address the
problem may have tragic results.
One union official in Alberta called it a disaster waiting to happen.
"To me, this is a piece of dynamite and the fuse is halfway burned off,"
said Henry Helfenbein, Teamsters Rail Conference Pacific region
"We truly feel that there is a concern for safety in general, and I
personally feel that it is not a matter of if something will happen, but
Joint bars connect two separate pieces of rail and are not supposed to
come into contact with the wheels of passing trains, but union officials
say excessive wear of tracks and wheels has caused the wheels to impact
They're calling for increased track maintenance -- a call heard
repeatedly by the Transport Canada Rail Safety Act Review Advisory Panel
CP spokeswoman Breanne Feigel said the company takes the issue
"Safety is a top priority for CP, so any cracked joint bar, no matter
how it is found ... is protected and replaced," she said. "We're aware
of the issues that were raised and certainly our company addressed them
and investigated them."
She said CP conducts regular track maintenance inspections "a couple of
times a week" and those are supplemented by regular manual inspections
by track supervisors across the entire system four times annually. CP
also inspects the tracks once a year with computer technology that uses
ultrasound waves to search for defects, she said.
"Our regulators have never outlined the need for the joint bar system to
be immediately replaced with something like welded rail because of the
issues identified by these union members," Feigel said.
Transport Canada has advised the union that it is looking into its
concerns and has requested CP to provide more information about how it's
dealing with the joint bar issue.
"Transport Canada rail safety investigators will remain vigilant in
their inspections on CP and will pay attention for flange worn bars and
when they encounter them, they will take appropriate action," rail
safety director general Luc Bourdon advised the union in a recent
Canadian Transportation Safety Board investigator George Fowler said he
has seen derailments caused by joint bars, but it's not a common
"It's not a systemic issue, but in certain territories you will see this
condition," said Fowler, the safety board's track and infrastructure
specialist. "It's a question of the railroad not changing over the rails
as soon as they should."
CP has had nearly 2,900 derailments over the past decade and averaged
350 a year over the last four years, up from an average of 260 a decade
CP responded to a union letter that raised concerns about damaged joint
bars by saying "the specific conditions highlighted are not track safety
Helfenbein said he found eight defects on a track in the Medicine Hat
area in an hour, and the day after he reported them CP crews went out to
"Why would they wait so long to fix them until someone brought it to
their attention and if it's not serious, why would they change them
overnight?" he asked.
Helfenbein says he subsequently received a CP directive ordering him to
stay off the tracks.
Bill Brehl, Teamsters Rail Conference president, says there are
thousands of joint bars on the CP line and "we don't know how many are
out there waiting to fail."
"This is an issue of them putting profits before safety; of them
trusting good luck and gravity to keep the trains on the rails," said
Brehl, who represents 3,500 rail maintenance workers. "This is a problem
that's systematic that could be leading to the increasing number of
derailments. It's getting worse and worse every day and they are putting
it off year after year. I think it has got to get fixed and it has got
to get fixed now."
Feigel said CP has the lowest accident rate in Canada at 2.1 accidents
per million miles compared to an industry average of 3.4 accidents. She
said the company is spending $800 million to upgrade rail infrastructure
and has a plan to replace 20,930 kilometres of track.
"We rely heavily on our employees in ensuring that we remain the safest
railway in North America," she said.
A spokesman at CN said joint bars have not been an issue on its track.
A union employee, who requested anonymity, said he wasn't aware of joint
bars being an issue, but "if it's a problem at CP, it's a problem at CN."
Todd Cotie, a United Steelworkers Union health and safety employee
representative at CN, said the railway is eliminating the need for joint
bars by welding the rails together.
"They temporarily fix the rail with these bars, then they take the bars
out and weld the rails in the spring, but they can't keep up," he said.
The Canadian Wheat Board told the railway safety act review panel last
year that it lost $2.4-million worth of grain in the two previous years
due to derailments.
"Reports on the incidents and their causes would suggest that the
railways are not doing all they can to prevent, or at least reduce the
severity of these occurrences," it said. "Maintenance and train service
employees on both railways have indicated their concerns with the
deteriorating safety of the rail lines caused by longer and heavier
trains, fewer staff doing maintenance and inspection, and longer service
hours for remaining staff."