Mr. Speaker, having a safe and reliable rail network is essential to Canada's mobility and economy. Seventy percent of all service goods are shipped by train. Passenger and commuter trains transport more than 70 million people a year. Our railways also have an environmental edge over road bound traffic as they only contributes 3% of Canada's transportation related greenhouse gas emissions.
By choosing rail, passengers and shippers also choose one of the safest modes of transport in Canada. However, although modest gains have been made in reducing accidents over the past few years, we are not where we want to be in terms of rail safety. The tragic VIA Rail collisions in Burlington in February of this year and the recent derailment in Alberta show that more needs to be done. Bill S-4, the safer railways act, is a step in the right direction.
Members know that the bill has been in front of the House of Commons several times. In fact, the history of it is quite extensive. It started in February 2007 with the department telling the minister of transport that there should be a full review of the operation and efficiency of the Railway Safety Act.
An advisory panel was established and came out with a final report entitled: “Stronger Ties: A Shared Commitment to Railway Safety”, which was published in November 2007. That was five years ago. It included 56 recommendations for improvement of rail safety, some of which are included in the legislative changes in front of us today.
Throughout the past five years, the bill came before the House in many forms. In May 2008 the standing committee tabled 14 recommendations after it studied the Rail Safety Act. In June 2010 Bill C-33 was introduced by the government in the House of Commons, but unfortunately it did not pass. We now have Bill S-4 in front of us.
However, Bill S-4 is only a step, not a leap. Depending on whom one talks to, it is more of a baby step. It is long overdue, but it is certainly not universal in addressing ongoing rail safety challenges.
Rail accidents have decreased over the last five years, but only in a very limited way. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, an independent government agency responsible for advancing transportation safety through investigations and recommendations, has some insightful statistics, some of which I will list.
The number of railway accidents went down by a meagre 5% from 2010 to 2011. We still have more than 1,000 train accidents a year. That is almost three a day. Slightly more than 100 train collisions and derailments happen on the main tracks and not tucked away in some slow-moving marshalling yard.
Off the main tracks, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada reported 573 collisions and derailments. There were 33 accidents in which the culprit was not due to human error or rolling stock, but because the rails themselves were unsafe.
Every other week, somewhere in our country, there is a rail accident that involves fire or an explosion. VIA Rail unfortunately does not own its own rails but leases them from CN/CP. This makes it hard for VIA Rail to have much control over the rails.
Needless to say, a rail accident's harmful potential is compounded when dangerous goods are involved.
In 2011 there were 118 accidents involving toxic cargo, most of them were derailments. In three of those accidents harmful contents were spilled, damaging the environment and threatening the health of residents and workers.
Even without collisions, once a week there is an incident somewhere in Canada in which dangerous goods are leaked.
The Transportation Safety Board reported 51 incidents in which harmful and toxic substances were inadvertently released into the environment, and things do not look much better this year. From January to March, there were 16 dangerous goods leakages. During the same time frame last year, there were 11. We actually had five more incidents of dangerous goods that leaked into the environment than last year.
While the number of overall accidents has slightly decreased, 5%, the number of serious accidents, those that have to be reported to the Transportation Safety Board, has increased by a dramatic 27% from 2010 to 2011. The number of mandatory reported rail incidents rose from 160 to 204. That means we are on par with the numbers again in 2005, 2,004 rail incidents. That is a big number. It makes one wonder about significant and sustainable safety gains that were supposedly to be achieved under the Conservative government.
In 2011 there were 68 accidents involving passenger trains. Just to keep the record straight, travelling by rail is still several times safer than taking a car, but 68 accidents involved passenger trains last year.
In addition to the potential damage to passengers and working crews, passenger train accidents have a corrosive effect on public perception. Right after the Burlington accident, VIA Rail suffered a slump in passenger numbers. The solution is not to talk about it, but to really tackle our rail safety deficit head on. It is timely that this bill is in front of us at third reading. Hopefully it will be law in a few days.
There was a train accident on February 26 of this year in Burlington and one in Montreal a few years ago. Rail accidents not only impact workers and passengers who are hurt or fatally injured, but the damage and the grief goes beyond those immediately affected such as local communities and residents and businesses. Whenever these accidents happen, emergency personnel and local residents show valour and compassion beyond the ordinary. The five heroes who were honoured by Burlington city council yesterday are prime examples of just that.
Tragic accidents also leave deep scars in local communities. Almost two years after the fatal accident in Montreal, the parents of three teenagers who were killed are still looking for answers as to why their children were run over in the dark by a train with dimmed headlights.
The Transportation Safety Board has investigated more than 170 rail accidents in recent years. Based on the insights from its investigation, the Transportation Safety Board has made a whole host of demands for improving rail safety. For the particularly urgent and important ones, it files a formal recommendation with Transport Canada and tracks the ministry's response and action.
Since 2005, the Transportation Safety Board has issued more than 50 of those formal recommendations. Unfortunately, under the Conservative leadership, Transport Canada has not been very proactive or eager to follow those recommendations. Less than 60%, that is 6 out of 10, of the Transportation Safety Board's file demands have been completely addressed in the eyes of the independent agency. Why have not 100% of the recommendations from the safety board been addressed and implemented?
Fifteen per cent of the expert's recommendations were partially addressed. One-quarter of the Transportation Safety Board's recommendations were essentially left unaddressed, with no meaningful action taken. I will take some time later on to go through them.
The TSB, in its very charming wording, said that it was “satisfactory intent”. There is intent, but no action has been taken. In some of these cases, the ministry has been sitting on its hands for seven years, so it is very subtle to call that intent.
The first of the recommendations is the voice recorders. We will recall, in all of these accidents, whether the one in Quebec or the one still under investigation from Burlington, that the investigators have not been able to get to the bottom of the accidents because there are no voice recorders in the locomotive cabs. Therefore, unlike planes, we do not know precisely what happens in the locomotive cab.
Even before 2007, close to 10 years, the safety board has said that Transport Canada must mandate these voice recorders to be installed in the locomotive cabs. For six years nothing happened. Recently we heard from the minister that some discussion had taken place, that there was some negotiation with the unions. The unions have said that they are not opposed to them, so there is absolutely no reason why it is not mandated. Apparently there are more discussions. There is a lot of talk, but at the end of the day there are still no voice recorders in locomotive cabs. That is just not acceptable.
The second area the Transportation Safety Board has talked about is the need for an alternative mechanism to slow down the trains if the trains go too fast. In these times of modern technologies, certainly the switches and tracks can be connected with the braking system. Such technology exists. It is called a positive train control system. It is a system that is being installed across the states. Amtrak, for example, has them now. As of 2005, it is mandatory that every train in the U.S. has such a control system. Therefore, as in the case of Burlington, the train would have automatically slowed down to the appropriate speed and not jumped the track because it was going too fast.
Another area we need to look at occasionally is driver fatigue. What happens is a driver might report to work at 8 a.m. If the train is late, or for some reason there is a breakdown or mechanical problems, the driver waits and waits, then starts work. In this case, by the time drivers start their work, they have waited for many hours and some of them are in fact very tired.
We need to look at the whole area of rail crossing in the future. We did not make any amendments to that, because rail crossing is fairly complex. A lot of developments have built condominiums and shopping malls around railway tracks. Some of the railway companies say that if municipalities want to go ahead and build such developments in areas served by trains, then at least the railway companies should be advised.
Local municipalities, local government is a provincial matter. In many ways it does not necessarily come under federal jurisdiction. However, this is an area we need to look at. We do not want a developer building a series of high-rises, an entire neighbourhood on one side of the track, and then a school or a shopping mall being built on the other side of the track. People are then tempted to cross the track, even though there might be barriers. They might take shortcuts and put themselves in danger. Urban planning needs to recognize rail safety as a very important issue.
In European countries and in Asia, railway crossings are increasingly separated by grade. The train either goes into a tunnel or it goes up on a bridge so that the pedestrian can walk across directly. It is not a shortcut. In some cases, pedestrians go across a bridge to cross railway tracks. It costs a bit more money, but it is infinitely safer than asking people to go around railway tracks and not take a shortcut.
Railway associations are quite concerned about those areas, but given how long Bill S-4, the safer railways act, has been before the House, the committee and other members of Parliament and the NDP did not want to slow down the bill. It was fast-tracked through the committee, which is why I did not move any amendments on voice recorders, positive train control, rail crossing or driver fatigue. Those issues, important as they are, need to be investigated and considered in a future study, maybe in future recommendations.
I was assured by the minister that voice recorders are coming soon. After all these years of waiting, they will come and we do not need to mandate them. I will not quite believe this until I see it, but let us see what happens.
I want to turn the rest of the few minutes I have to talk quickly about the rest of the Transportation Safety Board's recommendations. They were left unaddressed by Transport Canada. Let me list some of them.
The department of transport, in conjunction with the railway industry and other North American regulators, should establish a protocol for reporting and analyzing tank car stub sill failures, so that unsafe cars are repaired or removed from service.
Another recommendation where no action has been taken is that Transport Canada work with the provincial government to expedite the implementation of a national standard for low ground clearance advance warning signs at railway crossings. Railway crossings are very important, and we need advance warning signs.
CN should take effective action to identify and mitigate risk to safety as required by its safety management system. We should require CN to do so, not just ask politely. We should implement Transport Canada standards to improve the visibility of emergency contact signage at railways crossings, again, it is about railways crossings, and then conduct assessments of level crossings on the high-speed passenger rail Quebec-Windsor corridor and ensure that defences are adequate to mitigate the risk of truck-train collisions.
There are many more recommendations that I want to go into, but I am running out of time. I know that when we work together we can get the job done and make train service in Canada even safer than it is today.