Canada's transport watchdog calls for tougher safety systems for trains

TORONTO (Reuters) -- Canadian railways should bring in automatic braking systems and video recording devices to help prevent accidents like a fatal 2012 passenger train derailment, according to the country's transportation watchdog.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada's proposals would apply to both passenger and freight travel, bringing railways in line with air travel, where flight recorders and automatic pilot systems have long been required.

The new rules would also bring Canada's railway regulations closer to those of the United States, where a 2008 overhaul means nearly all rail lines must introduce automatic control systems by the end of 2015.

The board's recommendations came in its report on the 2012 accident, which killed three engineers and injured 45 passengers.

The board said the train was traveling more than four times the rated speed for the track near Toronto where the accident took place, and engineers apparently ignored or misunderstood track signals that told them to slow down.

"Missed signals are a real risk," said Wendy Tadros, chair of the Transportation Safety Board. "Every day, hundreds of freight trains encounter thousands of signals all over Canada. Those trains carry chemicals. Flammable liquids. And more and more oil."

Canada has limited passenger rail service, but railways carry more than 310 million tonnes (One tonne = 1.102 tons) of freight a year including ever-larger volumes of crude oil. Oil accounts for around five per cent of total rail traffic in Canada, National Bank research analysts say.

In May, a train spilled 575 barrels of crude oil onto the Saskatchewan prairie after it derailed.

The TSB said rail operators should install automatic, fail-safe override systems that can stop or slow a train if it misses a signal. It also said locomotives should be equipped with video monitoring systems to make crash investigations easier.

A spokesman for Canadian National Railway, one of Canada's two big rail companies, said CN Rail is already rolling out fail-safe control systems in Canada and the United States, where it also operates.

But Mark Hallman said it was unwise to move beyond what is currently mandated in Canada until the system has been proven reliable. "It's a technologically complex system that as of yet has not been proven in any large scale industry implementation," Hallman said.

Transport Canada, the industry regulator, now has 90 days to respond to the TSB recommendations.