TORONTO -- The federal agency responsible for transportation policies across the country must modernize training and qualification rules for railway employees to help staff keep up with evolving industry practices and technology, Canada's transport safety watchdog said Wednesday.
The Transportation Safety Board said it's been issuing similar calls for nearly 15 years, but an investigation into a 2016 runaway train incident near Toronto has prompted it to redouble its entreaties to Transport Canada.
"What we learned is that the regulations that govern employee qualification standards have not kept pace with the significant changes in railway operations over the years," said board member Faye Ackermans. "As a result, some railway employees working in key positions may lack the training or experience to safely perform their duties."
Ackermans said the board is recommending that Transport Canada update its Railway Employee Qualification Standards Regulations, adding it's been urging the government body to do so since 2003.
Transport Canada said it is reviewing the board's recommendation but already has the issue on its radar.
"Transport Canada is currently looking at ways to strengthen the railway employee qualification and training regime to reflect changes in an evolving railway industry," spokeswoman Annie Joannette said in a statement.
The TSB's most recent investigation was prompted by an incident in June 2016 at the MacMillan rail yard near Toronto.
The board found two employees were assembling a train consisting of two locomotives and 74 cars, one of which Ackermans said contained flammable liquid.
The crew was trying to conduct a switching operation that required extra room. The board found they obtained permission to move the cars up a slight incline out of the yard, then downhill toward a main set of tracks.
The two crew members received briefings on their assignment, but the board found a misunderstanding arose as to the types of brakes that would be deployed. As a result, the board found the crew members engaged only the independent brakes located on the two locomotives and did not connect automatic brakes on the freight cars that would have allowed them to slow the train down.
The crew successfully got part of the train out of the yard, but things went awry when about two thirds of the cars were positioned on the downhill slope while the rest were still in the yard on a different angle.
The board found the train did not have sufficient braking power and began travelling down a stretch of the main track for nearly five kilometres at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour. It eventually came to a stop on its own without causing any injuries or damage.
Ackermans said incidents involving uncontrolled stops have been on the rise over the past five years, but did not provide specific figures.
The most notable instance of a runaway train took place in 2013 when tanker cars with crude oil barrelled into the Quebec town of Lac Megantic, causing a massive explosion that killed 47 people and levelled a large swath of the downtown core.
Ackermans said both crew members in the 2016 incident were qualified train conductors with two years of experience in the rail yard. Both had also sought necessary permissions and obtained helpful briefings prior to the incident.
But Ackermans said there were some "key differences between what they were tasked with and the duties they were used to performing" that left them without the ability to do their jobs safely.
Ackermans said Transport Canada's regulations, which were first enacted in 1987, have not kept up to date with industry practices and technology that have become prevalent in more recent years.
She said the employees were using remote control technology that is widely seen as helpful and useful, but that technology was not in use when the rules were first developed.
Locomotive engineers, for instance, are still the only employees required to have recurrent training in areas such as train handling despite the fact that they are no longer required for assembling and moving trains, she said.
"So long as these gaps in regulations remain, Transport Canada won't be able to fix the problem, either," she said. "They won't be able to conduct effective oversight, nor will they be able to enforce training programs for safety-critical positions."
The board said Canadian National Railway, the operator of the train involved in the 2016 incident, undertook risk assessments across the country and tightened braking safety regulations at all its yards.
Company spokesman Patrick Waldron said CN implemented "new requirements for the minimum number of air brakes and location-specific operating procedures for similar operations." He said there have been no "uncontrolled movements" on main lines so far this year.