November 26, 2013 / 3:47 PM / in 4 years

Canada does bad job of overseeing rail safety -official watchdog

OTTAWA, Nov 26 (Reuters) - The government in Canada, where 47 people died in a tanker train disaster in July, is doing a bad job of overseeing rail safety, an official watchdog said on Tuesday.

The damning report, from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, revealed a series of problems at the federal transport ministry, which is supposed to check that the 31 railways it oversees have effective safety management systems.

There was not enough focus on high-risk railroads or “the most significant safety risks” and there were weaknesses in collecting data and auditing railroads, the report said.

Ferguson, who examines government spending and performance, completed his audit on June 28, soon before a train carrying fuel oil derailed and exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic on July 6.

Extending the period of the audit to include Lac-Megantic would have delayed the report by at least two years while safety officials probe the accident, Ferguson’s staff said.

“Transport Canada needs to address significant weaknesses in its oversight of safety management systems,” Ferguson said, adding it was taking too long to resolve significant safety issues.

“Transport Canada does not have the assurance it needs that federal railways have implemented adequate and effective safety management systems.”

Safety systems that the railways were told to introduce in 2001 to cut down on the risk of accidents include safety policies, risk control strategies and training.

But Ferguson said Transport Canada completed only 26 percent of its planned safety audits over the three years to March 31, 2012, and did not know whether its inspectors even had the required skills to do the job.

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt is set to respond to the report at 12:30 pm eastern (1730 GMT) on Tuesday.

The blast in Lac-Megantic happened when a runaway train exploded in the center of town, and focused attention on rapidly rising volumes of crude-by-rail shipments across North America as pipelines fill to capacity.

Federal railways carry more than 50 percent of goods transported by land in Canada, the world’s second largest country. The network has 44,000 km (27,300 miles) of track.

Yet a check of completed safety audits showed information was missing on railway firms’ own risk assessments, on sections of track used in transporting dangerous goods and on the condition of railway bridges, the report said.

In many cases, when Transport Canada ordered a firm to take corrective actions it did not check if the work had been done.

Ferguson said Transport Canada had also not assessed whether its current workforce had the required skills to carry out audits. Many had not received enough training.

This is particularly relevant, since 40 percent of inspectors will be eligible for retirement by 2015.

Transport Canada has already ordered that two qualified personnel run any train hauling dangerous goods in future. The train that exploded in Lac-Megantic had a single engineer.

Canada’s two big railroads - Canadian Pacific Ltd and Canadian National Railway Co - both said in the wake of the disaster that they were reviewing safety standards.

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