Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says the department overseeing rail safety has undergone significant changes and new marching orders since the Lac-Mégantic, Que., rail disaster on July 6, 2013, that killed 47 people.
But the minister is rejecting calls for a public inquiry into failures at Transport Canada identified in the final investigation report by the Transportation Safety Board.
"There was some very specific things in there about the failings that happened with officials at Transport Canada; we were really clear in government that, you know, this is not acceptable," Raitt told CBC News this week during an in-depth interview at her Milton, Ont., constituency office on the eve of the anniversary of the rail disaster.
Raitt remains adamant the cause of the derailment was a failure by the engineer to apply enough hand brakes to the ill-fated train and a lax safety culture at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, but for the first time she conceded problems within Transport Canada.
"Lessons learned from Lac-Mégantic have been very, very deep within the Transport Canada community. There has been a turnover of individuals at Transport Canada [including staff changes and retirements]," Raitt said.
"They understand fully what their role is going forward. And they are on track to ensure they are living up to what is expected by Canadians."
Transport Canada responsibility?
The Transportation Safety Board last August identified 18 "causes and contributing factors" leading to the tragedy, including a breakdown in Transport Canada's oversight of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
The board's final report documents a litany of problems at the railway including poor maintenance, poor training and a lack of a functioning "safety management system," which essentially sat in a drawer, unbeknownst to front-line rail employees for eight years.
Yet Transport Canada officials only wrote official letters and notices and never shut the company down or prevented it from adopting and expanding its use of one-man crews.
"They were in contact with MM&A when it came to infractions that they had been given notices of," Raitt told CBC News. "But you know, you can't have a Transport Canada inspector sitting with the person who is supposed to set the hand brakes. You are supposed to set the hand brakes."
Raitt would not directly answer questions about what responsibility Transport Canada shares for the derailment, nor would she directly say why the railway was allowed to continue operating given its record.
"We can't change what happened in the past, as much as we'd love to," Raitt told CBC News. "But we can certainly take what we think should happen in the future based on the information we received, and the expectation is that officials will do it."
Critics accuse Raitt of playing down multiple regulatory failures at Transport Canada, and some argue there should be a public inquiry into safety and oversight of Canada's entire rail system.
"Based on what we've seen so far, Transport Canada is not going to investigate itself," said Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"I think that requires an independent judicial inquiry. We've seen such inquiries in the case of the Hinton rail disaster , in the case of the Ocean Ranger oil rig , in the case of Walkerton  … to really get to the bottom of the issue, to compel senior industry players and senior officials and politicians to come to the table."
Raitt rejects the idea and says a review of the Railway Safety Act in 2006, along with findings from the TSB and Canada's auditor general, have already offered government numerous recommendations to improve rail safety.
'Safety management' under fire
Much criticism of Canada's rail safety regime has targeted what is known as SMS, or safety management systems. They are mandatory internal operational plans drafted by rail companies that are supposed to be routinely audited by federal inspectors.
"Transport Canada didn't audit railways often enough and thoroughly enough to know how those companies were managing or not managing risk," TSB chair Wendy Tadros told a news conference last August as the safety watchdog released its final conclusions on the Lac-Mégantic investigation.
York University's Mark Winfield, an associate professor in the faculty of environmental studies, says safety management systems — in rail as well as the aviation sector — have been repeatedly identified by the TSB as being "paper exercises" that take resources away from in-person site inspections and monitoring by Transport Canada of day-to-day operations.
away from the bread and butter business of regulatory oversight, of actually looking at what is going on in the field, and actually looking at what companies are really doing."
Raitt defends Canada's regulatory regime and insists her government is adding more auditors and ensuring there are adequate in-person rail safety inspections.
"SMS is the world-wide gold standard of how to have oversight with respect to rail. If you go to Europe, if you go to the U.K., it's the same way. What SMS does is it creates an extra layer on top of what's already expected," Raitt said.
"But the department understands and knows very clearly from outside forces that they need to ensure that they are doing what they need to do to make SMS work. They are on the right track and we are providing those resources."