Presentation to the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (Winter 2014)
Chair, Transportation Safety Board of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario, 1 April 2014
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Mr. Chairman, Honorable members. I want to thank you for inviting the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to appear today.
I bring with me three colleagues who offer a wealth of experience. Mr. Jean Laporte is our Chief Operating Officer. He has been with us since our inception in 1990 and possesses a deep understanding of our mandate and the processes we follow. Kathy Fox has been a member of the Board since 2007. She has over four decades of aviation experience and is an expert in safety management systems. Mr. Kirby Jang is our Director for Rail and Pipeline Investigations. He is well placed to provide greater context and information on TSB rail investigations, as well as the statistics we hold and why we hold them.
We are here today because you are conducting a review on the transportation of dangerous goods in Canada, and the role of safety management systems.
A number of high-profile accidents, here and south of the border, have shone a spotlight on rail safety and the transportation of crude oil. They have forced us to re-examine whether our operations are safe enough—and if not, what needs to be done to improve matters. Because today, there is a heightened fear. There has been—and there is no other way to put this—an erosion of public trust. Five years ago the amount of oil moved by rail across Canada filled 500 cars. Maybe five or six long trains. But last year that figure rose to 160 thousand. And Canadians know much of this oil is volatile.
No accident speaks more profoundly to the risks than Lac-Mégantic, where last July a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire, killing 47 people. In this investigation, we still have months ahead of us—months in which we will complete our investigation and report to Canadians. That being said, early on, in this investigation, we identified important safety issues and communicated them to regulators. And then in late January, in an unprecedented act of cross-border collaboration, the NTSB and TSB made several recommendations aimed at making the transportation of crude oil safer across North America.
In Canada we called for tougher standards for Class 111 tank cars. That's because in Lac-Mégantic, the entire train was made up of older, unprotected tank cars, and almost every tank car was breached, fuelling the fire. This car was in the middle of the train and you can see how badly damaged it was. Even the cars at the end of the train, those moving at relatively slower speeds, were badly damaged.
Today, the rail industry is moving toward a new standard for general-service Class 111 tank cars, and that's a good thing—but a long and gradual phase-out of older model cars simply isn't good enough. It leaves too much risk in the system. That is why we were crystal clear: commodities posing significant risk must be shipped in containers that are safe. And the sooner, the better.
Our second recommendation dealt with the way railways plan their transportation—how they choose the routes on which oil and other dangerous goods are carried … and how they ensure safe train operations over those routes. This involves a comprehensive, system-wide review of many variables. It's about looking at what lies along each route, identifying alternative routes, and choosing the ones with the least risk. It means, for example, ensuring that track be maintained to the highest standard, that speeds are appropriate, and that wayside detection systems are in all the right places. This needs to be followed-up with risk assessments, to ensure the steps being taken will keep our communities safe.
Our final recommendation to emerge early from the Lac-Mégantic investigation was about making sure that when something does go wrong—even in the face of advance planning—the right resources are in place to reduce the severity and impact of a spill. We therefore called for emergency response assistance plans where large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons, like oil, are being shipped.
An answer to our recommendations is due later this month. We are encouraged by the Minister's response to our early communications on Lac- Mégantic. They signal an understanding of the risks of carrying more and more oil by rail—of what is at stake and of the need to address the risks the TSB finds. In responding to our recommendations, it is my hope the Minister will lead with initiatives to squarely deal with these three important safety issues.
And now I'd like to discuss one of the other ways of ensuring our transportation network is as safe as it can be. And that's the second topic you have been tasked with addressing as a committee: SMS.
As my colleague Kathy Fox has so often put it, safety management systems help companies find trouble before trouble finds them. An SMS is not a panacea, nor should it be mistaken for one, but it is a very good tool, one that helps find the biggest risks so they can take mitigating steps … in advance. At the Transportation Safety Board, we think SMS is so important that we put it on our inaugural safety Watchlist, back in 2010. And to be fair, Canada's major railways and a number of shortline railways have been working to implement SMS, and they've taken significant steps. But 12 years on many of the systems they've implemented are not yet mature. That means they are not netting the safety benefits they should. I'm talking about the need for audits, and for strong regulatory oversight. I'm talking about risk-based inspections and—where appropriate—enforcement to ensure compliance. The Auditor General's report reaffirms the importance of all these things, and we strongly agree.
Before I close I would like to note that we've recently updated our own regulations, modernizing reporting requirements and harmonizing thresholds about dangerous goods with the TDG regulations. That will mean more notifications about trains that go off the rails—for example, all one- and two-wheel derailments must now be reported to the TSB. It will also mean that, when a release of DGs leads to consequences such as death, injury, collision, derailment, fire or explosion or any other threat to the safety—then railways must report these spills, no matter how small.
That's where we are today. None of the safety issues are about to disappear anytime soon—and this committee has an enormous task ahead. Not just to examine the issues of SMS and the transportation of dangerous goods … not just to hold hearings and find out ways to ensure that our railways, our waterways, our pipelines and our skies are as safe as they can be … But also to make recommendations that will lead to real action … concrete measures to shore up, and restore, shaken public confidence.
In all of this, we at the TSB share your goals. Advancement of transportation safety is our mandate. We have spent more than two decades working at it, and you will find us committed, informed, dedicated … and very cooperative.
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