Canada’s transportation safety authority has asked the City of Ottawa to do more to make sure city buses stop at rail crossings when warning lights are on.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) announced Tuesday it has issued two letters of recommendation to the city following incidents that happened at the same Barrhaven crossing where an OC Transpo bus collided with a Via Rail train Sept. 18, killing six people.

The first letter deals with four incidents when OC Transpo buses went through the west-end crossing when warning lights were on, but gates were not down:

  • Oct. 1, 2013, around 7:45 a.m. The driver of a northbound Route 73 articulated bus said he was 30 feet away from the crossing when the warning lights and bells went on, with a train about a kilometre away. The driver said he believed stopping suddenly with a bus full of people, some standing, could put their safety at risk so he continued through the crossing.
  • Oct. 11, 2013, around 6:45 p.m. The driver of a southbound Route 77 double-decker bus was about 15 feet away from the crossing going just under 60 kilometres an hour when warning lights and bells went on. He said stopping the bus suddenly would have put passengers at risk.
  • Oct. 30, 2013, around 7:40 p.m. The driver of a southbound Route 95 bus went through the crossing going 58 kilometres an hour, which is eight kilometres over the speed limit, when warning lights and bells were on. OC Transpo said at the time it was not illegal to go through flashing railway crossing lights, but several days later an OC Transpo supervisor met with the driver to suggest he "hover" his foot over the brake and be prepared to stop when crossing lights are on.
  • Jan. 27, 2014, around 7:45 a.m. The driver of a northbound bus running 27 minutes behind schedule because of a winter storm went through the crossing when warning lights and bells were on. The driver said he was about 20 feet away from the crossing when the signals were activated, but a passenger said they were about 100 feet away. The driver said stopping the bus suddenly would have put passengers at risk.

That letter asks the city to come up with “additional measures,” without being specific, to make sure buses can safely stop when warning lights are on.

Investigation unusual

The TSB's lead investigator on this file, Robert Johnston, said the last incident was what led them to get a followup from OC Transpo, which linked all four.

"There was a common theme in that there's an opportunity for drivers to go back to their driver's handbook, look through it and I think they'll notice most handbooks in Canada [say] whenever a driver's approaching railway tracks, they should slow down, be prepared to stop and yield right of way to a train," he said.

"I'm not sure that message is really understood across the country and we thought this would be a good time to reinforce that message."

Johnston said the TSB met briefly with the city on Tuesday and said officials have been "very co-operative."

The second letter is about another instance, where lights stayed on and one gate remained closed after a train went by.

The TSB said three OC Transpo buses went through the crossing while lights and bells were activated and an OC Transpo supervisor tried to lift the south gate.

It recommended OC Transpo and Via Rail come up with standard operating procedures for when automated crossings malfunction, as was the case then.

The Transportation Safety Board said it doesn't normally look into such incidents, but "heightened public concern" caused them to followup.

"There's a lot of people that ride over [that crossing] every day," Johnston said.

"There have constantly seemed to be reports in the media about this activating or something not working, we just felt it was incumbent upon us to check into it."

Johnston said these letters are "in conjunction" with their investigation into the crash itself, which is ongoing.

City responds to TSB letters

In a memo issued Tuesday, city manager Kent Kirkpatrick said that three specific issues raised in the letters will be addressed:

  • Installing an amber early warning signal for southbound Transitway traffic.
  • Reviewing potential speed reduction.
  • Reviewing the bylaw that governs the operations of vehicles on the Transitway.

The memo, addressed to the mayor, members of council and members of the transit commission, detailed that the city has already reduced the speed limit in the area of the crash to 50 km/hr.

"As we have just received these letters, we will review the content thoroughly and continue to work with the TSB and VIA Rail to address matters that have been raised," the memo said.

OC Transpo has also taken specific measures, including a minimum of three visits to rail crossings as part of new bus operator training. Bus operators are also subjected to daily internal radio announcements "to remind them to exercise caution when approaching a rail crossing, and to adhere to the posted speed limits," according to the memo.