By Sally Macdonald, Cranbrook Daily Townsman
A month after 47 people died in a railway tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canadian Pacific Railway has laid off the majority of its specialized safety inspectors, known as railway carmen, in the Cranbrook rail yard.
Last week, Canadian Pacific (CP) cut four out of seven of the Cranbrook-based carmen, whose job it is to inspect rail cars as they pass through Cranbrook, including those carrying dangerous goods.
“It doesn’t provide us with enough man power to inspect trains 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Brian Stevens, a national representative for the CAW union, which represents the carmen.
According to WorkBC, railway carmen inspect, troubleshoot, maintain and repair structural and mechanical components of railway freight, passenger and urban transit rail cars.
Mechanical tests are still conducted in Cranbrook by other CP employees, according to Dave Able, General Chairman, LE West, for the Teamsters union, but they are less thorough. Teamsters represents CP Rail employees such as locomotive engineers, conductors, trainmen and yardmen.
“The carmen do a more thorough type of brake test than we do,” said Able. “The carmen do a very thorough inspection. They check into the drafting equipment, looking for cracks. We just look at the brakes and the wheels. They are far more proficient at it.”
Able said that dangerous goods come through Cranbrook on the way to the Teck smelter in Trail.
“There’s anhydrous ammonia and dangerous chemicals there for the smelting process, and they are going around Kootenay Lake. And they run right through Creston,” said Able.
Anhydrous ammonia is a toxic gas with a slight flammability risk. However, it becomes more combustible in the presence of oil. The chemical is to blame for the deadly April 2013 Texas fertilizer plant explosion.
The CAW confirmed the train to the West Kootenay is an issue.
“We are currently investigating because there is one train that goes to Trail in the afternoons that is not getting a safety inspection,” said Stevens.
The last train derailment on the railway line around Kootenay Lake was in April 2012, when a rock slide struck a small work train east of Nelson, sending an excavator into the lake.
“We’ve seen the tragedy that could happen. We all know it’s pretty high in the news right now,” said Able, referring to the Lac-Megantic tragedy.
Transport Canada passed emergency legislation changes for railway companies in late July after Lac-Megantic, saying that there must be two crew members when transporting emergency goods, and no train carrying dangerous goods can be left unattended on a main track.
The CAW’s Brian Stevens reassured that the railway through Cranbrook is still safe, despite the loss of most of the carmen.
“Does that mean instantaneously that the railway is now unsafe? No, it doesn’t. It just means that there needs to be in place a more rigorous regime in which we can ensure that we maintain a high quality of safety inspections across the country, not just in Cranbrook,” said Stevens.
“The railways continue to be a relatively safe way of transportation, but it does rely on safety inspections and maintenance inspections.”
The problem, according to Stevens, is that railways police themselves, and simply report any changes to Transport Canada.
“The railway can designate a location as a safety inspection location or de-designate it, and all they have to do is notify Transport Canada,” he said.
Stevens said that CP Rail’s Chief Executive Officer Hunter Harrison has admitted plans to cut staff by up to 6,500 employees.
“Inside the regulatory regime, certainly there are ways the railways can reduce staff and pull some of those costs out,” said Stevens. “But our obligation as an organization is to ensure that the railways are doing this in the safest manner, and ensure that safety is a top priority and not shareholder value.
“It’s not just in the East Kootenay, it’s everywhere in the country, and I think it has raised its profile.”
A spokesperson for Canadian Pacific insists that safety is indeed the railway’s top priority.
“Operating safely has been and always will be priority number one at CP. It is our commitment to our employees, the customers, and the communities like Cranbrook where we operate in and through and that focus is not going to change,” said Kevin Hrysak, CP Rail’s media relations manager.
He could not comment on the carmen layoffs.
“It is our policy to keep matters such as human resources decisions internal, but any needed temporary staffing changes are communicated directly to our employees,” said Kevin Hrysak, CP Rail’s media relations manager.
But, Hrysak added, CP continues to conduct other train inspections.
“CP takes safety very seriously and this change does not impact our regularly routine and required train inspections which continue to be performed at the required locations as they always have.”
He said the cuts were made to react to business demands.
“We are continually assessing our operations and adjusting according to business ebbs and flows associated with global markets and operation efficiency gains.”
The CAW said residents of the area shouldn’t be concerned, but should be aware of the changes.
“People in the East Kootenay don’t need to be alarmed, but certainly they have every right to demand that railway safety and the public interest is first and foremost, and not shareholder value,” Stevens said.
“Residents of the East Kootenay have every right to ensure that the regulators hold CP Rail to the highest safety standards and the highest in the public interest.”