October 31, 2016 / 4:46 PM / 10 months ago

Canada safety watchdog says action needed on train crew fatigue

An engine runs on the railway in downtown Lac-Megantic, June 21, 2014.Mathieu Belanger

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Too many Canadian train crews are not getting sufficient rest and railroads need to do more to apply fatigue science to scheduling, the country's transport safety watchdog said on Monday.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, an independent government agency, singled out rail fatigue in its 2016 watch list, which identifies key safety issues in Canadian transportation.

TSB Chair Kathy Fox said by phone the board would meet with industry and government representatives as soon as Tuesday to push for concrete action, including the creation of more predictable schedules for employees who often work on two hours' notice.

"There is a systemic problem with the way crews are being scheduled," she said in an interview.

Fox said fatigue has been a factor in numerous investigations of freight train accidents over the last 26 years.

"It is significant because it means the risk is always there," she said.

Fatigue management has been repeatedly raised as a safety concern by the Teamster Canada Rail Conference, which represents about 10,000 workers at Canadian National Railway Co and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

"We're really concerned about the effects of crew fatigue on our members and on rail safety," Don Ashley, national legislative director for the union, said by phone on Monday.

Ashley said he did not believe it would be a significant cost for railways to create more predictable schedules for operational workers such as locomotive engineers.

Faced with soft volumes at a time of lackluster commodity prices, railroads have been cutting costs as part of their push to improve efficiency and profitability.

Ashley said the union was making "some progress" with CN on scheduling but has not "been that successful with CP."

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron did not offer specifics on the cost of creating more predictable schedules.

"We are actively talking and working with our union leaders and employees on fatigue and other important safety issues," he said by email.

CP could not immediately be reached for comment.

The TSB chairwoman also said the federal regulator, Transport Canada, had been slow in addressing previous safety guidance from the TSB, noting that 52 recommendations on various issues have been outstanding for 10 years or more.

In a release, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he would be "looking carefully at the issues and risks raised" by the TSB and has asked Transport Canada for "specific areas where faster progress in reducing risks can be made."

Reporting By Allison Lampert; Editing by Dan Grebler and Alan Crosby

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