The fatal collision between a Via Rail train and an Ottawa bus on Sept. 18, 2013, occurred in Canada’s busiest and most-travelled region — the Quebec City-Windsor, Ont., corridor — and the accident has called attention to the country’s level crossings.
With more than 40,000 federally and provincially regulated public and private railway level crossings, also known as grade crossings, in Canada, concern is high about their safety.
“The level crossings are as safe as regular highway crossings,” David Jeanes of Transport Action Canada, a citizen advocacy group on transportation issues, told CBC News.
“In Ottawa, we have road accidents every morning during rush hour. We have fatal accidents once in awhile … you cannot prevent every single accident."
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Although Transport Canada has the authority to permanently close a crossing if there is an immediate threat, this action is rarely taken.
Some of the newer safety measures implemented over the past few years including expanded use of LED lights on gate arms, flashing lights instead of signs and illuminated signs.
Despite Jeanes’s contention regarding the safety of Canada’s level crossings, a 2007 report by Transport Canada stated that “as both rail and road traffic continue to grow, the risk of grade crossing accidents will continue to increase.”
"While there is some cause for satisfaction, we believe that there is much work to be done to improve safety at crossings,” the report said.
The collision in Ottawa was at a crossing that, in the 1980s, was the scene of two near-collisions between public transit buses and trains. Critics have called for action on the crossing – near Woodroffe Avenue and Fallowfield Road – because buses take a path that curves left into the crossing, heading northward.
More than 10 years ago, the city had plans to construct an underpass to separate the traffic from the trains. Pegged at $40 million – split between city, provincial and federal coffers – the project hit a snag when it was discovered that the area underneath was unstable with water flowing freely. It was fixable, but would increase costs to the tune of $100 million.
Instead, the city opted to widen the road as a less expensive option.
Flashing yellow lights
According to Jeanes, not much could have been done to improve safety at that particular crossing, “apart from eliminating the crossing altogether.” The crossing had flashing red lights, bells and barriers, which were down.
“The average cost of eliminating a grade crossing [separating the rail line from the road] is $40 million for each crossing,” Jeanes told CBC News. “That’s why Canada has been one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have high-speed rail lines.”
Jeanes said authorities should consider advance warning signals.
Between 2003 and 2012, there were 2,162 crossing accidents in Canada on federally regulated railways:
• These resulted in 266 fatalities and 346 serious injuries.
• 94 per cent of crossing accidents involved motor vehicles.
• On average, between 2003 and 2012, there have been 216 crossing accidents a year in Canada on federally regulated railways, with an average of 27 fatalities a year and 35 serious injuries a year.
• Between 2003 and 2012, crossing accident fatalities accounted for 32 per cent of all fatal rail accidents in Canada on federally regulated railways.
• Between 2003 and 2012, serious injuries at crossings accounted for 51 per cent of all serious injures involved in rail accidents in Canada on federally regulated railways.
—Transportation Safety Board
“They could put a flashing yellow light as a kind of repeater signal,” said Jeanes. “So before the bus driver rounded that curve, he would have seen a flashing yellow light warning him of a flashing red light ahead.”
Jeanes said warning yellow lights aren’t normally used for railway crossings but might be appropriate for some like the one at Woodroffe Avenue in Ottawa.
Another option to consider would be to impose a rule similar to that in Quebec in which all buses are required by law to come to a full stop five metres before a level crossing, whether the barrier is up or down.
Jeanes said there is already a debate about that.
“It’s certainly worth investigating … there are Ontario cities where transit buses are required to stop,” noted Jeanes. “Perhaps it’s something bus companies should consider.”
In the past 10 years, there have been 257 accidents involving passenger trains colliding with vehicles at level crossings across the country — 71 of those occurred in the Quebec-Windsor corridor.
Although one-third of public crossings across the country have gates and/or flashing lights and bells, collisions continue to occur.
CN has upgraded the warning systems on 31 public crossings and 24 private crossings in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor since June 2012 and also closed 21 crossings. Even as improvements have been made, the TSB says, the “accident rate has not been significantly reduced.”
Draft regulations in the works
The responsibility for railway crossings is shared between municipalities, the rail companies and the federal government.
The 2007 Transport Canada report said improvements to rail crossing safety were hampered by “jurisdictional disagreements” over things such as “lighting, fencing, drainage culverts and maintenance of roads at crossings.”
Change is coming, however, and Transport Canada has made draft regulations concerning safety measures that would require equal sharing of costs between municipalities and rail companies.
The regulations would also apply certain safety measures according to how busy a crossing is.
Brock Carlton, CEO of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the safety criteria needed to be “flexible enough to adapt to site-specific realities.”
“For example, a crossing with significant traffic volumes will require a different set of safety measures than one in a more remote area with minimal traffic,” said Carlton in an email to CBC News.
Also in the draft regulations are guidelines on the sharing of costs.
“The cost of making safety improvements at level crossings is shared between road and rail authorities, and sometimes the federal government. Any additional costs as a result of new regulations will of course have to be shared as well,” wrote Carlton.
Meanwhile, at Transport Action Canada, Jeanes remains adamant that Canadians need not worry about the safety of rail crossings.
“Across Canada there is some sort of collision between a passenger train and a vehicle about every two weeks on average, not all are fatalities,” said Jeanes.
“One accident every two weeks Canada-wide compared to the road accidents that happen on our highways every day is a very small part of the total number of injuries and deaths from transportation accidents."