Rail safety: Train operators breaking more rules in recent years

Records obtained by CBC News suggest there's a growing problem with rules intended to keep trains from colliding or hitting work crews on the ground being broken.

Crews increasingly running stop signals, speeding, travelling in wrong areas

Train operators breaking more rules

10 years ago
Duration 2:24
Crews increasingly running stop signals, speeding, travelling in wrong areas

Wayne Easterbrook and his wife were among dozens injured on Feb. 26, 2012, when a Via Rail train they were on flew off the tracks in Burlington, Ont., killing three.

"People make errors. It's part of being human," the Kingston, Ont., resident acknowledged, "but if there's anything out there that can be purchased to assist people in doing their job, especially when it comes to safety, then the government, or in this case the company, Via … should spend the money."

But Easterbrook, whose wife suffered a punctured lung and a fractured collarbone, was troubled to learn that cases such as the Burlington derailment, where crews failed to obey a signal, are happening far more frequently than he'd thought.

"If it's repeating and happening all the time and they're not doing anything to fix it, that's a big problem to me," he told CBC News.

Transportation Safety Board (TSB) records obtained by CBC News suggest the Via Rail incident is part of a larger, growing problem — rules intended to keep trains from colliding or hitting work crews on the ground are increasingly being broken.

A catch-all category technically called "movement exceeding the limits of authority" captures any time a train speeds, fails to obey stop signs or enters a part of the rail system where it's not allowed.
In recent years, these types of infractions have been steadily climbing, hitting a decade-long high of 120 last year, according to the Transportation Safety Board's rail occurrences database obtained through the Access to Information Act by CBC News, some details of which are being made public for the first time. Trains broke the rules at least 1,353 times in the past 13 years.

"It’s like when like when you drive through a stop sign or a red light. You may be lucky. There may be no other vehicle … but the possibility is always there," said David Jeanes of Transport Action Canada, a transportation advocacy group.

"Some of the most catastrophic railway accidents, particularly involving passenger trains, have occurred when trains have gone too fast or they’ve gone through stop signals," added Jeanes.

Fatigued, distracted crews

A number of provinces reported a rise in the number of infractions on their rails, including Alberta where the yearly figures doubled in the past decade to 31 last year, but others, such as Ontario, are seeing a steady decline.

The Burlington crash is not the first such incident. In early 2010, a Via train crew failed to stop after misreading a signal near the southern Quebec village of Saint-Charles-de-Bellechasse. The train derailed and smashed into houses and cars, injuring two locomotive engineers and five passengers.

Two years earlier, a Canadian Pacific Railway freight train failed to stop and hit the tail end of another train, causing cars filled with glycol, vinyl acetate and liquefied petroleum gas to derail and go up in flames near Ralph, Sask.

Other cases of failing to obey signals involve fatigued crew members unaware of what station they are at or distracted by their cellphones.

However, none of the above cases fall under the TSB's publicly reported figures for infractions — movement exceeds limits of authority — because the incidents were identified solely as derailment or collision and not attributed to the underlying infraction.

Among the cases in the database never investigated are trains travelling nearly 20 kilometres on a main track before the realization they shouldn't be there, others stopping less than a kilometre apart and many that came too close to hitting crews working on or near a track.

In one 2011 incident, a local Ottawa passenger train, the O-Train, travelling 55 km/h through the city, almost runs into a crew working on the Rideau River Bridge. Workers managed to get away but it was deemed a "near-miss."

Repeated calls for action

Rail safety experts and the TSB have repeatedly called for the federal government to bring in automatic anti-crash systems that can slow down trains detected to be speeding or those failing to stop.

It’s a little unusual for the TSB to be publicly criticizing the government, but certainly reflects a measure of frustration.- Transport Action Canada's David Jeanes

Several weeks ago, the independent agency sent out a press release criticizing Transport Canada for a “lack of firm action” on two key recommendations it made after the deadly Via crash last year that could prevent similar accidents.

The TSB had asked that the government require companies to add physical controls that can stop trains when signals are disobeyed and in-cab audio and video recordings so investigators can better understand what led to a crash.

The automatic controls have been recommended by TSB for years, while mandatory audio recordings have been recommended for a decade.

“Their implementation will bring down the risk of another accident like Burlington,” TSB chair Wendy Tadros said in the press release.

The federal independent agency that investigates rail safety couldn’t conclusively determine the cause without in-cab voice recordings, but it said the crew misperceived the signal to slow down.

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“It’s a little unusual for the TSB to be publicly criticizing the government, but certainly reflects a measure of frustration," said Jeanes.

Via Rail said it’s looking at installing in-cab recorders on its locomotives and is examining options for fail-safe controls, even though Transport Canada hasn't mandated either.

TSB says signal errors happen about once a month in Canada.
Passenger trains have been involved in at least 135 infractions since 2000, with 2012 marking the highest year, according to the database.

About 70 of those involve Via Rail, Canada's largest commuter rail operator. Twenty-one of the infractions involve failing to stop. One case resulted in a minor injury. Via says it has never been sanctioned or fined by Transport Canada.

“One incident is an incident too many and we take them all serious,” said Marc Beaulieu, Via Rail’s chief of transport, but he added that the cases are “extremely rare” and can happen for various reasons.

“It could be a mechanical issue, it could be an operator error, it could be a miscommunication by radio,” said Beaulieu.

Via said its numbers of infractions have fallen in recent years thanks to increased training and electronic monitoring of train speeds.

Money vs. safety

Montreal’s regional commuter train operator, AMT, which experienced 22 occurrences since 2000, with nearly a quarter of them in the past year, said other factors are also at play.

Montreal's regional train service, AMT, says infraction figures may also be on the rise due to trainspotting errors and training. (CBC)

“In the rail industry, there’s a lot of movement going on regarding employees. A lot of people going into retirement, they are replaced by younger people,” said Stephane Lapierre, AMT’s vice-president of operations. “Training becomes the hardest thing to do.”

Lapierre also notes that trainspotters on platforms also make errors when guiding a train in.
“If you go past a signal, trying to spot your train on the platform properly, you need permission to back up, so the infractions could be as small as that,” said Lapierre.

At least 56 of the infractions, or about 4 per cent, involved trains carrying dangerous goods somewhere on the train, though none of those cars spilled over.

Ensuring that companies follow the rules is an issue the United States is also struggling with.

A New York City commuter train travelling three times the allowed speed on a curve flew off the rails over the weekend, killing four and injuring dozens. It’s still unclear whether human error or faulty brakes are to blame.

Similar crashes in recent years spurred the U.S. government to legally require all companies by 2015 to implement so-called positive train control, an automatic anti-crash system that can halt a train that is speeding or at risk of a crash.

Jeanes said Canada has decided to take a wait-and-see approach, watching the U.S. for signs that the costly systems prove worthwhile, though most industrialized countries have introduced the automatic train control systems.

But that approach isn't good enough for Easterbrook.

"They have the technology to fix it," he said. "The will should be there. I don't think money should be placed above human safety."

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