Transport Minister unveils new safety measures after fatal railway yard accident

Transport Minister unveils new safety measures after fatal railway yard accident

The federal government is rolling out new measures to bolster rail safety following an investigation into a fatal 2017 incident at a Saskatchewan railway yard.

Under an order from Transport Minister Marc Garneau, railway companies must adopt updated practices for employees who conduct switching duties — taking railcars from one track to another — that ensure equipment is properly secured.

Transport Canada said it also plans to ramp up oversight rules and address gaps in employee training and experience.

The department said it will work with industry and labour representatives to identify the causes of uncontrolled movements that occur while switching without air brakes.

“I am deeply troubled every time there is a rail incident that results in a tragic death,” Garneau said in a statement Thursday.

The new measures follow a Transportation Safety Board report in June that expressed concerns about inexperienced workers being paired together and recommended changes to reduce uncontrolled movement of railcars.

Two Canadian National Railway Co. employees were carrying out switching duties at the company’s yard in Melville, Sask., 150 kilometres east of Regina, on Dec. 22, 2017, when one was fatally injured.

The safety board said the two workers, one a designated foreman and the other a helper, were moving railcars by letting them roll to their intended track without the use of air brakes.

The investigation found that the crew’s limited experience likely contributed to a decision to shove three loaded cars up a slight grade using a remote-controlled locomotive at too low a speed, which resulted in the cars losing momentum and beginning to roll backwards.

“Team work is critical but, in this occurrence, the foreman and the helper were working in virtual isolation,” investigator Glen Pilon said in a video statement released with the report on June 10.

“Both employees were relatively inexperienced and wore green vests to indicate less than two years of service,” Pilon said.

“No plan was discussed for kicking the cars uphill, nor was there any shared expectation of how this would be performed.”

The investigation found the 26-year-old foreman, Melissa Heins, climbed onto one of the cars to try to stop them from rolling backwards by applying a hand brake.

“But the cars didn’t stop,” said Pilon, who added the brake was ineffective.

Heins was fatally injured when the cars collided with several stationary ones and she was pinned.

Ian Naish, a rail safety consultant who served as the safety board’s director of rail and pipeline investigations between 1998 and 2009, highlighted inexperience, oversight and risk assessment as ongoing problems.

“When you’re doing the graveyard shift, I suspect it’s the youngest or least experienced people who have that job. And unless they have proper training and supervision and have a proper risk assessment before they go out and do their yard work, then they’re at risk to a certain extent,” he said.

Naish approved of Transport Canada’s directives, noting that the frequency of uncontrolled railcar movements has “been getting worse year after year.”

Rail fatalities totalled 72 in 2019, up from 57 the year before and in line with the 10-year average of 73, according to the safety board.

Five of the 72 were railway employees who were fatally injured, more than twice the 10-year average.

Crossing fatalities increased 47 per cent year over year to 28 in 2019 and trespasser fatalities rose by 12 per cent to 34.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2020.

— with files from Stephanie Taylor

Companies in this story: (TSX:CNR)

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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