Everyone, including Transport Canada, had abdicated their role to ensure that the Ottawa Light Rail Transit (OLRT) system was safe from the start. Maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, Transport Canada’s unwritten priorities seems to include not just keeping Canada’s transportation systems safe but ensuring that private companies have as little regulation as possible.
Despite Ottawa’s municipal transportation system falling within federal jurisdiction, right now, it is the City of Ottawa’s responsibility to create and apply safety standards. They contracted this out to the Rideau Transit Group. How well is that working out? Like the rest of the OLRT saga, it is a disaster. The Transportation Safety Board’s (TSB) report into the most recent derailment flags Transport Canada’s contribution to this mess.
First, they noted that there were prescribed minimum safety standards for passenger rail cars in Canada and that in normal rail car operations like Via Rail, passenger cars are not only equipped with axle roller bearings but also equipped with on-board axle roller bearing heat detection systems. This ensures that the train can be slowed or stopped before a catastrophic roller bearing failure occurs. This does not seem to be the case for the OLRT
However, the Passenger Car Safety Rules do not apply to the OLRT. In 2015 Transport Canada agreed to the City of Ottawa’s request for an exemption. According to the TSB report, “(t)he agreement authorizes the City to regulate any matter covered by the Railway Safety Act relating to the design, construction, operation, and safety and security of the railway, which includes developing and applying its own rules or regulations.”
What would make Transport Canada think it’s a good idea to allow anyone to opt out of what they claim to be some of the highest safety and security standards for rail passenger safety? We can only presume that one of the reasons was that even though the LRT is considered in law to be a federal rail transportation undertaking, the TSB noted that “federal legislation and regulations have not been developed for application to municipal light rail systems”. It appears that for Transport Canada, they simply didn’t want to be bothered. They couldn’t even be bothered to develop regulations for transportation systems that fall within their jurisdiction let alone allocate time, energy, and resources to upholding the existing rules.
And just like today, the public’s voices were dismissed and diminished. In 2015 and before, public transit supporters raised concerns that the City of Ottawa’s move to have the municipality, rather than the federal government, regulate the construction, operation, and public safety of light rail in Ottawa, will bring more costs and inconsistency to the system. And that was ignored. Like almost all other public feedback.
This should be of great concern to everyone. Just last February, the federal government committed to investing $14.9 billion into public transit projects across this country. And while this investment is a positive step towards improving the lives of Canadians, it has no value if regulations and standards designed to protect us can be ignored.
What needs to happen now?
Transport Canada needs to stop shirking their responsibility and develop legislation and regulations for municipal light rail systems. Ottawa is not the first and won’t be the last city in this country to have this form of municipal transportation system. It is not an issue of convenience but of public safety.
The City of Ottawa needs to stop sticking its head in the sand and accept that it needs all the help it can get to deliver a safe and reliable transit service to its citizens. It’s time to ensure that everybody involved in public transit makes sure that safety is the number one priority.
Dave Clark is the National President for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees that represents workers at Transport Canada including the majority of federal transportation safety inspectors.