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TSB issues advisory letters after fatal rail crossing incident

(Canadian OH&S News)


(Canadian OH&S News)

Five months after a fatal collision between a transit bus and passenger train in Barrhaven, an Ottawa suburb, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has sent two safety advisory letters to the mayor of Canada’s capital. The letters concerned more recent occurrences at the rail crossing where the accident had happened, near the Fallowfield bus station.

The TSB issued the advisory letters to Mayor Jim Watson on Feb. 25, after reviewing several safety incidents at the crossing. The board is currently investigating the crash at Fallowfield on Sept. 18, when an OC Transpo double-decker bus collided with a VIA Rail train in an accident that claimed six lives and injured 35 others.

“There’s a considerable amount of public concern here,” said Ron Johnston, the TSB’s investigator-in-charge of the accident. “It’s still quite fresh in a lot of people’s memories, as that’s a highly travelled area.”

Copies of the letters went to other Ottawa municipal managers and to officials with Transport Canada and VIA Rail Canada Inc.

The first letter detailed four cases — three in October, one in January — in which OC Transpo buses had crossed the tracks while the crossing lights had been flashing but the gates had not yet been lowered. The TSB observed that vehicles sometimes failed to slow down when they approached the crossing.

“Similar situations can happen anywhere in Canada,” the first letter to Watson warned, adding that trains always have the right of way at rail crossings. “To reduce crossing accidents, it is imperative that all roadway vehicle drivers slow down when approaching any railway crossing, look both ways, be prepared to stop and yield the right of way to a train.”

The second letter dealt with a Feb. 11 incident in which one of the gates had malfunctioned. While the gate remained down after a train had passed, three buses proceeded over the crossing anyway, swerving around the stuck gate. “Although the parties involved took reasonable steps to minimize the risk,” the second letter said, “there are opportunities to improve safety.

“You might have a situation where the gate doesn’t recover, but the crossing protection is designed to stay active, so that it warns drivers that drivers are expected to be patient and not take things into their own hands,” said Johnston, referring to the warning lights and bells. “While there might be some service disruption, the safe course of action is to stay away from the crossing while the crossing protection is activated.”

As to why the Fallowfield crossing witnesses more driver carelessness, Johnston speculated: “You don’t encounter a train every single time, and usually, trains are perceived to be going slower at that part, because they’re arriving or departing from the station. Although they can still be arriving at a significant speed, and in some cases, drivers are aware that there’s a delay for the gates to come down.”

Johnston noted that the TSB had advised the City of Ottawa to put appropriate safety measures in place at Fallowfield. “And there are a number of risk control options that they could implement,” he said, but added, “It’s not our job to specifically tell the city what to do.”

According to a Feb. 25 memo that city manager Kent Kirkpatrick addressed to Watson, the city council and the transit commission, the City of Ottawa has begun plans to address the issues that the advisory letters raised.

Among measures the municipal government expects to take are an installation of an amber early warning signal for southbound traffic at Fallowfield, possible speed reductions and a review of the bylaw that governs the operations of vehicles on the road at the crossing. In addition, the city plans to meet with VIA to discuss how to improve communication between the two entities.

“Safety of the crossings in Barrhaven and all across the city is a priority,” Kirkpatrick wrote in the memo.