Transport Canada refuses to discuss why it grants exemptions to freight rail companies on issues such as brake inspections and safety rules, claiming it is private information.

CBC News this week revealed that Canada’s rail regulator has waived a number of safety rules and orders for both CN Rail and CP Rail operations in recent years.

But in a statement late Thursday Transport Canada refused to offer reasons.

"We cannot provide details on specific exemption requests, as these are third-party information and subject to privacy regulations," spokesperson Karine Martel told CBC News in an emailed statement.

"The minister or her delegated official would not approve any request for a short-term exemption that threatened safety,” the regulator said.

An ongoing CBC News investigation into rail safety discovered three specific exemptions Transport Canada granted in recent years that had never been made public before.

Rail companies were ordered in 2006 to install reflective strips on railcars following a number of deadly accidents involving automobiles striking freight trains at unlit or poorly marked level crossings. Companies were given several years to make the change but in 2013 Transport Canada granted CN and CP an extension of another 28 months.

Transport Canada in 2012 waived the usual requirements for CN trains leaving Winnipeg’s Symington Yard for six months, allowing them to travel through the city without a complete brake test.

In 2012, Transport Canada granted CP an exemption to cut brake inspections on coal trains in British Columbia along a 2,400-kilometre loop. The company wanted a further exemption despite union objections claiming it was unsafe.

Other exemptions granted

Since the story aired, other railroaders have contacted CBC News about exemptions granted, and they question the adjustments allowed to the Canadian Rail Operating Rules, the industry’s safety bible. Transport Canada refuses to disclose how many exemptions exist.

The regulators refused to provide any rationale, but told CBC News that rail companies are entitled to seek exemptions under the Railway Safety Act after first consulting with employee unions.  In each of the three exemptions revealed by CBC News, unions objected but the regulator approved the waivers in favour of the rail companies.

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“The minister, or her delegated official gives consideration to union concerns, if any, as well as the measures taken by the railway company to ensure that safety is maintained,” Transport Canada said on Thursday. “The minister or her delegated official only grants exemptions when assured that the exemption is in the public interest and would not threaten the safety of railway operations.”

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told CBC News this week that “the health and safety of Canadians remains our top priority” in response to a CBC News story that rail companies sought a repeal of rules forcing detailed safety inspections on all railcars to be loaded with dangerous goods.

“[Industry] withdrew their pitch to reduce inspections and it’s a good thing they did, because I would have never allowed this to happen,” Raitt said.

NDP transport critic Olivia Chow accused Raitt of talking tough in public while allowing safety exemptions in private.

“Transport Canada is hiding the fact that instead of protecting Canadians, they are obeying orders from the rail giants and cutting safety inspection and granting exemptions to brake tests,” Chow said Thursday.

“Minister Raitt needs to come clean, tell Canadians what other gifts (in the form of safety exemptions) were given to rail giants. Why is she hiding the truth from Canadians?”