Transport Canada does poor job of overseeing rail safety: Auditor general

(Reuters) — Canada is not doing enough to ensure rail safety thanks to inadequate audits, ill-trained staff and too little focus on high-risk railroads, according to the auditor general's report.
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.

"Transport Canada needs to address significant weaknesses in its oversight of safety management systems," Ferguson said in the report, adding the ministry was taking too long to resolve significant safety issues.

The government promised to act on the recommendations.

"I've told Transport Canada officials that the public expect better of them," Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement. She said later she had told senior civil servants: "We need to move forward and fix this for the Canadian public."

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

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

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 per cent 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.

He told a news conference that Transport Canada's system of checks was "not robust enough to know that the companies are doing what they need to do to make sure their safety systems are working as they should be."

The official opposition New Democrats said the Lac-Mégantic crash and Ferguson's report showed the Conservative government had "failed lamentably" to ensure the railways were safe.

The blast in Lac-Mégantic 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.

Mark Winfield, an associate professor at York University in Toronto who researches public safety regulation, said the report raised "very fundamental questions" about Transport Canada's effectiveness as a regulator.

Ferguson said Transport Canada had 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 per cent 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 — both said in the wake of the disaster that they were reviewing safety standards. Neither had any immediate comment on the report.