A top priority recommendation from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to equip all trains with locomotive voice and video recorders has been stalled by a fight over how rail companies might use the recordings of their employees.
CBC News has learned the president of the union representing locomotive engineers and conductors at CN, CP and VIA Rail has filed a grievance and is arguing that only Transportation Safety Board officials should have access to on-board crew surveillance in the event of accidents.
For more than a decade, the TSB has been demanding that locomotives — on both passenger and freight trains — be equipped with in-cab recorders for use in accident investigations.
The federal government, however, refuses to legislate it and rail companies won’t install the technology unless they are allowed to use recordings to monitor and evaluate their own employees.
Spying, reprisals feared
VIA Rail was praised by the federal government last year when the passenger rail company announced it was voluntarily beginning a pilot project and intended to install audio and video recording devices in all of its locomotives by the end of 2014.
“We’ve installed a test system on two of our locomotives,” VIA’s chief of transportation Marc Beaulieu told CBC News last week.
Details of how the recordings could be used, however, are still the subject of talks with the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (CTRC), the union that represents engineers and conductors at VIA, CN and CP, Beaulieu said.
He called the talks "positive" but acknowledges the proposal for round-the-clock surveillance of workers within locomotive cabs is sensitive and unresolved.
"We are absolutely not using it," Beaulieu said. "We tested it with management people on a very isolated move so that we could simulate the same as an operating train, but with management people on board simulating the same kinds of conversations that crew must have."
The union filed a grievance in November against CN’s plans for the pilot project, calling on-board video and audio recorders a breach of their collective agreements and unjustified intrusion on engineers' privacy.
Of greatest concern to the union is the possibility that rail companies would have access to the recordings to monitor employee performance and behaviour.
“It’s like big brother looking over your shoulder,” said Bill Michael, the union chairman representing VIA Rail engineers and conductors, in an interview with CBC News. “It’d be like sitting in your office and having somebody stand behind you all day.
“I don’t have a problem with the TSB, having it involved with an accident per se,” Michael said, adding he fears the rail companies will use the recording devices for discipline and to monitor employees.
He likens the concerns to those of pilots, who successfully fought airline companies two decades ago to limit access to cockpit voice recorders to accident investigators. He said the union is not objecting to limited use of voice and video recordings by safety officials and provisions to erase the recordings after a short period.
At a standstill
One Canadian Pacific engineer who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity for fear of his job said engineers and conductors spend consecutive 12-hour shifts together and discuss deeply personal things.
The engineer also said he worries about fatigue, complaining that cameras would prevent employees from taking naps while parked on sidings to wait for passing trains. He said the practice is forbidden, but essential to combat widespread fatigue among train crews who spend long hours waiting on call and then long shifts on duty.
Railroad companies, however, say they will refuse to fund the installation of cameras if management cannot use the recordings to monitor employees, arguing it's integral to their safety management systems.
TSB probes prompting calls for in-cab audio/video recordings:
- 1999: A VIA train crew ignored a signal to slow down or stop, and flew at close 160 km/h past a stop signal and through a switch in the reverse position in Ontario. No one was injured. The TSB recommended "the recording of train crew members' voice communications for exclusive use in accident investigations."
- October 2009: A CP freighter smashed into the rear of a second parked CP train at Redgrave, B.C.
- February 2010: A VIA train entered a siding at approximately 100 km/h, derailing two locomotives and six passenger cars in Quebec. Two locomotive engineers and five passengers were injured. About 3,000 litres of diesel fuel leaked.
- October 2011: A VIA train had a near collision, travelling without proper clearance along track near Canora, Sask. The train stopped short of a head-on collision with an oncoming CN freight train.
"CN believes the broadest possible public safety benefits from in-cab voice/video recording devices will result from their use by CN to monitor in-cab activities as part of its [management systems] to address a variety of safety factors ranging from how rules are followed, to fatigue management,” CN spokesman Mark Hallman wrote to CBC News in an emailed statement.
“To only wait for incidents, for us is not a sufficient enough means of utilization; it is too reactive and post incident is not in a prevention mode,” VIA Rail’s Beaulieu said.
As a result of the dispute between the union and management, the installation of cameras is at a virtual standstill.
TSB urges use of voice recordings
The TSB has placed in-cab audio and video recordings on its top priority watch list.
In June 2013, the TSB again tabled a decade-old recommendation following its probe of the 2012 derailment of VIA Train 92 in Burlington, Ont., where three crew members died and 45 passengers were hurt.
The crew failed to heed a signal to slow down and the train careened off the tracks at close to 100 km/h as it hit a slow-speed crossover.
“The board remains concerned that the use of voice recordings as a valuable safety tool has not been implemented,” investigators wrote in their report.
It’s a recommendation the TSB has made numerous times following investigations into both passenger and freight rail accidents as early as 1999.
Transport Canada refuses to make it mandatory, but in a statement says it has written to rail companies “to strongly encourage installation of recording devices.”
So far, none of them has done so.