CANADA’s Auditor General released a report on February 25 criticising Transport Canada for its overall effectiveness overseeing rail safety and for failing to address all the recommendations to improve safety in its 2013 report.

The Auditor General’s report comes almost eight years after the tragic July 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, runaway wreck of a crude oil train which killed 47 people and destroyed most of the town’s business district. Its previous audit in 2013, however, was conducted several months prior to Lac-Mégantic.

“It remains crucial to determine whether [Transport Canada’s] oversight is having a positive impact,” says auditor general, Ms Karen Hogan. “We found that the department could not demonstrate the extent to which its oversight activities have improved the railway companies’ compliance with regulations that mitigate key safety risks.” Transport Canada did not produce sufficient evidence demonstrating that its oversight initiatives contributed to improved rail safety, though some progress - for example, following up on rail flaws found during inspections - has been made.

“I am very concerned that while Transport Canada has taken some actions to address our recommendations, eight years after our last audit, there is still much left to do to improve the oversight of rail safety in Canada,” Hogan says.

For example, Transport Canada collects data for 10-year rail accident and fatality rates. “These measures did not specifically assess the impact of the department’s oversight on the safety of rail transportation,” Hogan says.

The Auditor General’s analysis conducted prior to Lac-Mégantic pointed to “significant weaknesses” in Transport Canada’s oversight, such as a failure to obtain assurances from railways that adequate safety management standards have been implemented and inspectors have the correct tools to do their jobs.

Percentage of rail accidents in Canada by type in 2019

Minister's response

Mr Omar Alghabra, Canada’s minister of transport, responded to the Auditor General’s report in a statement:

“Transport Canada has taken action to implement all of the recommendations from the 2013 audit to strengthen oversight and improve compliance and enforcement activity. The department has also made considerable overall improvements to further enhance rail safety in Canada.

“We have hired more inspectors and increased the number of annual inspections. In the past year alone, we have implemented regulations requiring video and voice recorders to be installed in locomotives, approved new rules to improve fatigue management, and ordered the industry to improve employee safety in yard operations.

“We have also instructed industry to improve their track maintenance and inspection procedures and implemented speed restrictions on trains carrying large quantities of dangerous goods. Transport Canada acknowledges the findings of the report and is committed to the continuous improvement of its rail safety programme. The department will launch consultations on strengthening safety management systems and look to better measure the effectiveness of its oversight programme to identify further areas for improvement.

“As minister of transport, the safety and security of passengers and of the rail transportation system remains one of my top priorities. My department is already working to address all of the Auditor General’s recommendations to further improve the effectiveness of our safety oversight and is continuously looking for ways to make our railway system safer for Canadians.”

There are 75 railway companies and more than 45,000km of railway in Canada that are subject to Transport Canada’s oversight.