November 27, 2013

Auditor general says Transport Canada lacks rail safety oversight

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A report published on November 26 by Canada's auditor general lists several shortcomings in the way Transport Canada oversees the safety of the country's 31 federal railways.

The auditor general's finding are particularly concerning in the wake of the crude oil train derailment and subsequent explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on August 7 which killed 47 people.

Transport Canada has implemented a regulatory framework for rail transport that includes a safety management system approach to identify, analyse, and respond to safety risks, and has made progress with federal railways to implement it. However, the auditor general says that despite progress over the past 20 years, "a number of long-standing and important safety issues remain, including trespassing, grade crossings, concerns about the environment, the collection of data on safety performance from federal railways, and the implementation and oversight of safety management systems."

While Transport Canada has conducted many inspections and some audits to identify non-compliance with rail safety regulations, rules, and engineering standards, the  auditor general says it does not systematically collect and use important railway safety performance and risk data to ensure that it is targeting the higher-risk railways and the most significant safety risks.

Although federal railways were required to implement safety management systems 12 years ago, the auditor general says Transport Canada has yet to establish an audit approach that provides a minimum level of assurance that they have done so. Most of the few audits which Transport Canada has carried out were too narrowly focused and provided assurance on only a few aspects of safety management. The auditor general says at the current rate it will take many years to audit all the key safety management components.

The auditor general says many key elements of the guidance and tools provided to inspectors for assessing federal railways' safety management systems are missing. For example, there are few requirements to help inspectors plan, conduct, and conclude audits and inspections, and for following up on findings. This makes it difficult for Transport Canada to ensure that its inspections and audits are effective in determining whether railways are taking corrective actions where necessary. Lastly, Transport Canada does not have a quality assurance plan to continuously improve its oversight of rail safety.

Transport Canada has defined the skills its inspectors need to conduct inspections and safety audits but it has failed to assess whether its current workforce has the required skills. Many inspectors and managers have not received training on the skills needed to do safety audits, which the auditor general says is important if Transport Canada is to implement an effective and sustainable safety oversight.

For its part, Transport Canada says it agrees with all of the recommendations.

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