Canada: Incompatible government policies – change isneeded

11 May

The story that follows is an opinion piece by Michael Bourque, the President and CEO of the Railway Association of Canada. recently published in the Regina Leader-Post:

See Tracks, Think” was the message of the recent Rail Safety Week, devoted to educating the public about dangers associated with railway crossings.

People should think “train”, “danger” or “death” when they see tracks. They should think about the impact a lack of awareness around railway property can have on them, their family, the community and railway employees.

The Transportation Safety Board lists railway crossing safety as an issue that poses a great risk to Canada’s transportation system, and one that needs addressing immediately. Roadway-railway crossing accidents account for nearly 20 per cent of all rail accidents in Canada, and sadly, 30 per cent of these accidents result in death or serious injury. Last year, 21 souls were lost to railway crossing accidents in Canada. (In Saskatchewan alone in 2014, there were 33 accidents, two fatalities and seven serious injuries.)

Over the last 10 years, crossing safety in Canada has generally improved. Accidents have decreased thanks to railways’ investments, new regulations and joint industrygovernment efforts like Operation Lifesaver, which educates the public about trespassing on railway property and the hazards at crossings.

But the number of crossing incidents is not decreasing. In 2014, there were 180 crossing accidents in Canada, a total similar to the previous year, and to the five-year average. This is not surprising, due to record levels of road and rail traffic. But the trend is worrisome, and will not improve unless activity at crossings declines.

The opening of new crossings has contributed to this issue. When the Canada Transportation Act was passed in 1996, it gave the Canadian Transportation Agency the authority to order a railway company to build a suitable private crossing if it “considers it necessary for the owner’s enjoyment of the land.”

At the time, nobody foresaw an increase in new crossings. Nor did they consider the severe impact of these crossings on safety and railway capacity. But communities have since grown in proximity to railway lines, traffic has increased at Canada’s tens of thousands of existing crossings, and additional crossings have been built to relieve traffic congestion in many municipalities. So as Canadians increasingly rely on rail, the best way to improve public safety and railway capacity is to reduce the number of crossings.

Unfortunately, the existing regulatory approach for opening and closing rail crossings in Canada is standing in the way of this goal. Under it, Transport Canada has the authority to close grade crossings, while the Canadian Transportation Agency has the job to open new crossings – without the need to assess public safety.

This dichotomy in authority jeopardizes public safety, and has led to some counterproductive outcomes. In one case, the agency ordered CP to open a crossing just after Transport Canada had ordered it permanently closed for safety reasons. New crossings should only be approved as a last resort and if no alternatives exist. If a new crossing opens, an existing one should be closed so there is no net increase to the number of crossings.

While safety should be the main motivation for closing crossings, there is also an economic argument. The economy depends on Canada’s railways to move 75 million people and more than $280 billion of goods each year. Crossings have the effect of slowing rail traffic for people and goods. Accidents affect people, railway employees, communities, the environment and business. Railways need to maintain fluidity on their mainline tracks in order to deliver high levels of service to customers. Stretches of track are like highways; when an accident occurs, the network gets clogged, resulting in negative economic outcomes.

Transport Canada should maintain its authority to close all unsafe crossings. It regulates the overall safety of crossings in Canada, understands the associated dangers of railway crossings, and has developed regulations and grade crossing closure and upgrade programs to deal with this issue.

In addition, sole authority to open new crossings should be given to Transport Canada so public safety is always considered in the approval process for new crossings.

The Canada Transportation Act review that’s under way should consider how to reduce the number of rail crossings, and how to apply appropriate protections to those that remain.

Organizations like Operation Lifesaver help raise awareness about this issue, but these efforts get curtailed if crossings continue to open without consideration of public safety. Operation Lifesaver’s network – railway companies, labour groups, police and volunteers – hosts more than 500 rail safety activities across Canada each year. Since 2003, when Rail Safety Week was launched, crossing accidents in Canada have been reduced by 28 per cent.

This outreach has resulted in progress. If these efforts continue, and the regulatory regime evolves, we can improve crossing safety in Canada.

The closure of private level crossings is a cost-effective route to eliminating a large reduction in the number of level crossings against the background of any new level crossing requiring the closure of at least two through a consolidation scheme. There is no case for any new level crossings that does not effect a net reduction of level crossings on any railway system, certainly not in the developed world.

As towns grow, developers should be funding additional grade-separated crossings of the railway, not adding to the number of level crossings on the pretext that such crossings are necessary to allow the landowner to fully benefit from the land owned. Where land is to be developed, planning gain needs to be used to fund grade-separated routes across the railway. Or, at the very least, to enable the crossing to be upgraded to a safer form.

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