Transport Minister Lisa Raitt reacted strongly and swiftly to a CBC story Wednesday that detailed how Canada’s rail freight companies had asked to remove a requirement for inspection on dangerous goods railcars a month prior to the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, Que.

Raitt, who became minister days after the calamity, told CBC News yesterday, “I mean if the request came in, I would say no. It's pretty clear post-Mégantic or even before Mégantic, we want to make sure that we're doing as much as we can on inspections and the railroads — the railways understand what our point of view is on safety.”

The Railway Association of Canada withdrew the request 12 days after 47 people died in the small Quebec town east of Montreal late on July 6. An unattended train with 72 tank cars of crude oil rolled down a grade into Lac-Mégantic, where it derailed and exploded.

“The reality," said Raitt, "is that they probably withdrew it because they knew what the answer was going to be.”

Despite the minister's tough talk, her director general of rail safety has quietly granted safety exemptions to Canada’s major rail carriers.

Exemptions waive safety rules

A CBC News investigation has found that Transport Canada has granted at least three exemptions in recent years:

  • Rail companies had seven years, since July 19, 2006, to follow a Transport Canada order to put reflective strips on their railcars. It was deemed the safest method to prevent automobiles from crashing into trains on dark level crossings at night, but in 2013 CN and CP successfully lobbied to extend the deadline a further 28 months.
  • On Sept. 14, 2012, Transport Canada granted CN permission to conduct a test for six months that would allow trains leaving Winnipeg’s Symington Yard to snake through the city without a full complement of brakes.
  • On April 17, 2012, Transport Canada granted CP the right to run its unit coal trains in British Columbia along a 2,400 kilometre loop without a No. 1 brake test. It would be replaced by a trackside monitor, an air brake effectiveness test, that railway unions say is only 71 per cent effective.

CP was seeking relief from other restrictions in British Columbia, and proposed a waiver on inspections to allow a double-loop of 4,800 kilometres. But further exemptions for the coal train were withdrawn on July 30, three weeks after the Lac-Mégantic explosion.

“Those trains used to get safety and maintenance inspections in Golden, B.C., and another one at the port of Vancouver before it left to come back,” said Brian Stevens of Unifor, the union that represents the certified car inspectors, or carmen. “If Air Canada or WestJet or Porter was allowed to go to the regulatory body and say we want to be exempted from checking our planes, instead of every landing, we want to do it every five landings?

“How would the public feel about that?”

Stevens said the greatest danger, especially in B.C., is for railway employees, but he feels anyone who lives near a railway track should be concerned about the reliance of the industry on mechanical monitors.

The call for public safety was echoed by Mayor Mike Bradley of Sarnia, Ont., a city with a busy rail yard for petrochemical products. He said he is not surprised to learn industry was pushing to reduce inspections.

Bradley said it's part of a pattern of cost-cutting and risk-taking by large freight companies, driving up shareholder profits at the expense of safety and the confidence of local communities.

He fears Transport Canada will allow safety standards and vigilance to relax as Lac-Mégantic fades from the media spotlight.

“These railcars are rolling through the hearts of communities right across this country and the level of anxiety — for some very sad reasons — is very high in these communities,” Bradley told CBC News. “Transport Canada needs to become the watchdog, not the lapdog of the rail industry. My own observation from over the years is there's almost an incestuous relationship between the industry, Transport Canada and the government of the day  

“There's a role for government here.”

Transport Canada told CBC News it didn’t have enough time Wednesday to respond to questions about why the specific exemptions were granted, but could not clarify whether it makes exemptions public. CBC will publish more details as Transport Canada provides them.

For tips on this and other stories, contact John Nicol and Dave Seglins.

With files from Brigitte Noël