Former railroader highlights many rail safety issues

A recently-retired CP Rail employee raises safety concerns about the state of rail operations.

Editor,

Re: Revelstoke mayor awaits details of rail safety disclosure rules, News, Dec. 4

The scrutiny of our rail system continues after the tragic accident in Lac-Megantic. As reported in this publication our mayor is waiting to hear the details of new legislation that will require railways to disclose hazardous materials to the municipalities they are running through. This may be a step in the right direction. Mayor Dave Raven is correct that the details will be the important factor in whether this is effective or not.

There have in fact been many changes to operation rules since this tragedy unfolded and there are still many questions unanswered. It is interesting to note that dangerous commodities can no longer be left unattended on the main track. However, the same dangerous loads can be left unattended in a yard or off the main track. The “devil is in the details” indeed.

CP Rail would have us believe that they are operating safer than ever. The reality of the business is that they are running longer, more dangerous trains, scrimping on maintenance and repair, and forcing longer shifts and poor working conditions on workers. All this with the threat of reduced pensions. Meanwhile Mr. Harrison collects the highest compensation paid to any CEO in Canada. Maclean’s magazine reported recently that Hunter Harrison was Canada’s highest paid CEO at well over $40 million. At the same time, M.r Harrison is trying to convince CP workers to take less.

Meanwhile, back in Quebec, CP Rail is now being taken to task for its involvement in the Lac-Megantic disaster. Lawsuits are pending. CP has publicly complained about the fairness of being ordered by the Quebec Government to pay some of the cleanup costs in Lac-Megantic.

In CP Rail’s opinion, you can pass off dangerous commodities to a third party and wash your hands of any responsibility. It is now up to the court system in Quebec to debate that reasoning. I suspect they may see this differently.

The Harper government is not innocent in this either. They relaxed legislation to allow a rail carrier to operate with one-man crews and a liability insurance that was inadequate.

Recently the Harper government is trying to pass legislation that will change the “right to refuse” dangerous work. This is yet another move that will allow the railways to police themselves. This will effectively remove an important safety tool that is sometimes the last resort to preventing a mishap. It is seldom used, however, is a tool that has been valuable to uncover shortcomings it  the operations.

This is only part of the puzzle. One other important factor that needs to be addressed is crew fatigue. In my opinion this was a factor in the Lac-Megantic disaster as well as many other rail accidents across the country. A good portion a of rail accidents happen because of the human error. Crews are subjected to long hours of service, ridiculous amount of time at the away-from home-terminal, and irregular hours. It is impossible for crews to remain alert at all times under these conditions. Recently CP Rail removed a local rest clause that allowed the running trades employees to have up to 30 hours of rest. This was important for crews as they are often working irregular shift patterns and needed this to reset their sleep patterns.

There are many rail workers in our community. Just ask them how this is working. No one will give a positive spin on this.

One engineer recently told  me that on most days he feels like he is walking around with a ice pick in his forehead. At best he feels jet lagged. Is this conducive to safety? I think not. Another rail worker told me he was held at the away from home terminal for 21 hours, then he was deadheaded home in a taxi cab. The reasoning behind that is astounding.

Sadly, this is now common practice. He told me this was putting such a stress on his family life that he was actively searching for other employment. This, is as well, a common theme. Employees now work in an atmosphere of fear. This is the reality of the situation. Again this is not conducive to safe operations.

Locally, we should be asking the hard questions about what moves through our city and what plans there are for response to a mishap. The closest hazmat response team is in Kamloops. Another shortcoming. We would, in an emergency rely totally on our local fire department and city-funded emergency co-ordinations. Thankfully they are well equipped and highly skilled.

If we are to ensure that our rail systems are safe we need to push our government to strictly enforce current legislation. Transport Canada needs to enforce these rules and when necessary levy fines to ensure enforcement. CP Rail often violates the hours of service regulations for instance. I have yet to see them fined or taken to task for this. Lack of enforcement has empowered the corporation and those that work in management to abuse this more and more. This is being well documented by the union, but no one is listening.

Transport Canada and the Harper government needs to quit the practice of letting the railway police itself.

Our local press has expressed to me that they have difficulty getting local railway workers to talk as they are all in fear of their jobs. It seems the only people who can speak for CP Rail are spin doctors. Rest assured the corporation is spending plenty on that service these days.

Our hearts and grief continue to go out to the lost souls and destroyed families in Lac-Megantic. I continue to ask myself: what will it take to prevent this from happening again?

Finally, my advice is to sell your CP Rail stocks and hug a railroader. In that order.

Gary Starling,

Revelstoke

Editor’s note: Gary Starling is a retired CP Rail employee and current elected representative on Revelstoke City Council.

 

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