OHS Canada Magazine

Off the Rails

June 4, 2012

Health & Safety Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG)

On Sunday, February 26, VIA Rail train 92 rumbled down the tracks through Burlington, Ontario from Niagara Falls, heading into Toronto’s Union Station. The crew and passengers on board were just 80 of the 15,000 people riding the rails on...

On Sunday, February 26, VIA Rail train 92 rumbled down the tracks through Burlington, Ontario from Niagara Falls, heading into Toronto’s Union Station. The crew and passengers on board were just 80 of the 15,000 people riding the rails on 51 different trains criss-crossing the country that day.

At 3:30 pm, as the train crossed over from track two to track three at more than four times the maximum authorized speed limit, the locomotive and all five cars bucked off the rails and smashed into a nearby building, killing all three engineers and injuring 45 passengers.

The deadly incident not only directs the spotlight on train 92, but also on the very safety of Canada’s rail system.
“Our railroads are built to a relatively high standard, but not to anything like the levels of technology in terms of train speeds and signalling systems that exist in other countries,” says David Jeanes, president of Transport Action Canada, a public transportation advocacy group in Ottawa.

Robert Smith, national legislative director for rail union Teamsters Canada Rail Conference in the nation’s capital, echoes the sentiment. “Technology-wise, in other parts of the globe, we are lagging behind.”

Centralized traffic control, currently in use in Canada, is an example. The system consolidates and controls railway movements through signals and switches remotely operated by a train dispatcher at a central office.

Developed at the turn of the last century, centralized traffic control is “essentially providing the same level of safety redundancy as when it was introduced,” says Dan Holbrook, manager of head office and western regional operations for the rail and pipeline investigations branch with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) in Gatineau, Quebec.  “It relies upon the operating crew to observe wayside signals, understand the implication, the definitions of those signals, and apply those directions to the operation of the train.”


In 2001, the board recommended additional back-up defences to ensure signals were consistently recognized and followed. But to this day, no physical, redundant defence systems have been added to Canadian rail systems, Holbrook notes.

In the wake of the Burlington tragedy, critics argue that it is time to start implementing positive train control (PTC) technology, a physical defence system designed to automatically apply the emergency braking system. “Virtually every major industrial country has either implemented or has plans to implement PTC, and we don’t have it at all in Canada,” Jeanes argues.

Had train 92 been equipped with that technology, engineers Ken Simmonds, Peter Snarr and trainee Patrick Robinson might still be alive today.


Positive train control is touted as being at the forefront of train safety technology. It has been shortlisted by the United States’ National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as one of the items on its “most wanted list” of safety improvements since 1990. “The PTC system is the Cadillac [of automated train controls], if you will,” Holbrook says.

Positive train control works through a combination of wireless communications networks, global positioning systems, onboard computers with in-cab displays and throttle-brake interfaces, and communication units at switches and wayside detectors that allow trains to communicate with a centralized control centre. 

Trains equipped with PTC report their position, speed and other relevant data to the control centre through a wireless data link. The control centre uses the data from the trains in its sector to alert conductors about track changes and issue movement and speed limits, while maintaining a safe separation between trains based on their speed, size, weight and other variables.

Switching Tracks

The genesis of positive train control (PTC) technology dates back to the mid eighties, when the Association of American Railroads and the Railway Association of Canada developed and partially implemented an advanced train control system that promised integrated communications, commands and controls for railroad operations, as well as the ability to keep trains separated by a safe margin.

A year later, Burlington Northern Railroad in the United States began to develop a similar system alongside. These two platforms are what the United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) considers the original business case for PTC.

System development continued until 1994 when both projects were discontinued “with little or no public explanation,” the FRA reports.

Railway operators south of the border continued to develop similar automated train technologies independently, but it was not until the passing of the Rail Safety Improvement Act in October of 2008 that PTC became “the poster child of train safety,” says Dan Holbrook, manager of head office and western regional operations for the rail and pipeline investigations branch with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) in Gatineau, Quebec.

The bill was signed in response to the Chatsworth, California disaster that resulted in 26 fatalities and more than 130 injured.

The complex algorithms that run the systems must be able to calculate “favourable stopping distances for any kind of train, any combination and permutation of train, on any kind of track, in any kind of condition,” Holbrook explains.

The onboard computer in the train monitors data against the train’s actual location and speeds to determine potential and realized unsafe conditions. If the train is approaching the limits of safe operation, or is nearing or exceeding its speed limit, the computer will send a warning to the engineer to take appropriate action. If the engineer does not act, the PTC’s emergency systems will automatically initiate a safety brake application to slow or bring the train to a halt.

While the PTC system may represent the best in train safety as far as current technology affords, it is not flawless and, on its own, will not prevent all rail incidents. Information from the United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in Washington, D.C. indicates that PTC systems have the ability to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into work zones and train movement through a misaligned or improperly lined switch.

However, the technology is not able to prevent low-speed collisions from permissive block operations (where trains may continue on a line even though it is occupied, as long as it is slow enough to stop safely); shoving accidents or bumping into something when a train is reversing; derailments caused by a mechanical failure in the train or track; or grade crossing and track incursion collisions.

That said, the TSB has noted in their investigation reports the technology “has the potential to significantly reduce collisions between trains.”

Since 2002, the NTSB has recommended the adoption of PT
C as a rail safety system, and cited its lack as a contributing factor in 16 train accidents. Those accidents resulted in 37 fatalities, 637 injuries and more than $72.5 million in damages to trains, property and the environment.


Rail safety technology is gaining steam south of the border as the United States moves forward with a federal law that requires PTC to be implemented on most railroad network by December 31, 2015.

By that date, the Rail Safety Improvement Act will require PTC systems be installed on all rail lines that carry five million gross tons per year on a track; are used to transport poisonous or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials; or are used for passenger service. This means that PTC will become a requirement on 70 to 90 per cent of main line tracks — almost 100,000 kilometres over 41 different railroads — in the United States, the FRA reports.

Information from the Association of American Railroads (AAR) in Washington, D.C. reveals that Canadian Pacific and Canadian National will be required to install PTC systems, as their operating revenues (which exceed $319 million annually) classify both companies as Class I railroads. Canadian Pacific and Canadian National will be installing almost 2,700 and just under 6,000 kilometres, respectively.

Currently, 11 PTC projects are in various stages of development, and four Class I railways have already implemented or are testing this technology down south, notes TSB information from 2010. As railroads had been voluntarily installing their own PTC systems, the act would require each carrier’s system to be interoperable and able to communicate with other systems being installed.

“The big issues around the industry surround interoperability,” Holbrook says, pointing to the FRA’s type approval and authorization to four separate PTC systems as a case in point. Many of the commuter railways and Class I railways that operate on each others’ territory would have to find a way to make the systems able to share infrastructure, he adds.

The FRA supports PTC on the grounds that it enhances safety and saves lives. It also enables railways to schedule operations more efficiently, which would yield cost-savings by improving reliability, running time and track capacity, as well as reduce energy consumption.

But there has been a push-back against PTC legislation, with organizations down south lobbying Congress for an extension to the 2015 deadline and contesting the high costs and low returns. The AAR contends that PTC systems will cost railroads over $13 billion to install and maintain over a 20-year period. For every dollar the system returns in safety-related benefits, it will set rail operators back by $20.

“The cost-benefit analysis does not work favourably towards PTC,” Holbrook says.

Apart from its prohibitive cost, Jeanes cites the fact that PTC does not return an easily measurable benefit as another deterrent. “It is possible that even if a small number of accidents were averted, there would be a significant saving. However, we have so many thousands of kilometres of railway main lines across the country that equipping all of them and every single locomotive with PTC would be a very expensive investment,” he argues. 

Significant hurdles must also be surmounted in completing the design, production and installation of the many components that would underlie a PTC network over a vast territory of tracks, notes information from the Railway Association of Canada (RAC) in Ottawa.


While American railways are legally mandated to adopt PTC systems, no such legislation exists or is even on the table in Canada. “We have no target. There’s no program, there’s no legislation, there’s no regulation that is directing the Canadian railways to do this,” Jeanes says.

Olivia Chow, New Democratic Party MP and opposition transport critic, is calling for legislation to mandate PTC systems. “The ones blocking this are the two large rail companies. They frankly just don’t want to make the investment,” Chow charges, adding the U.S. Congress acted swiftly and put the onus on the rail companies to make the switch to PTC following the disastrous rail accident in California in 2008.

Holbrook suggests the relative novelty of the technology poses a significant barrier to any PTC mandate that could come into effect. “We’ve been watching and following what’s been going on south of the border. They are having a great deal of difficulty getting themselves into a position to meet this deadline. There’s an awful lot of technical development going on and a lot of issues to tackle,” Holbrook says.

A Head Start

While rail network operators in Canada are intently watching developments relating to positive train control (PTC) unfold in the neighbouring south, the nation’s capital has already taken the lead by adopting this technology that has yet to take root in the rest of the country.

The O-Train, an eight-kilometre, federally regulated light rail transit service in Ottawa, is the only commuter train in Canada that is equipped with PTC, says David Jeanes, president of Transport Action Canada in Ottawa. “This is a train that is operating on a single track line with two trains going in opposite directions and they have to meet and pass each other at a passing siding every fifteen minutes. That’s been going for 10 years with no accidents,” Jeanes says, giving credit to the O-Train’s use of PTC technology.

“Transport Canada approves the safety of that line on the condition that it does have positive train control,” Jeanes notes, adding the O-Train is allowed to operate with only one engineer, “which Transport Canada would not permit on any other railway in Canada.” Transport Canada regulations stipulate a minimum of two engineers on each train to observe and read out the signals to each other.

One-man operated trains are “pretty much the standard in other countries,” Jeanes says, citing Japan’s bullet train and France’s Train de Grand Vitesse as examples.

He also points out the technology they need to implement these systems is still under development. “It’s not like they can call up a supplier and buy things off a shelf. Some of the things they’re trying to buy don’t exist yet,” Holbrook says, adding that it is more economical for Canadian railways to introduce administrative defences that rely on human activity and behaviours.

While equipping the nation’s thousands of kilometres of rail lines with PTC systems would be enormously expensive — no studies of the actual cost have been done as of yet — Jeanes thinks that much of the sticker shock could have been alleviated if baby steps had been taken earlier. “If we had even implemented PTC on a few main lines across Canada by now, then gradually extending it to the rest of the system would not be so expensive,” he suggests.


So what would it take to get Canadian railways in step with the rest of the world with regards to rail safety?

“The short answer: political will,&
rdquo; Chow says. “The Conservative government can simply bring in a law to make positive train control mandatory. We cannot wait for the private rail companies to take the initiative. What is needed is federal leadership on a crucial issue that affects the safety of 70 million rail passengers a year in Canada.”

There are rumblings that PTC technology will begin to creep northwards. Kevin Hyrsak, spokesperson for Canadian Pacific, says from Calgary that PTC will “obviously come to Canada shortly too,” but sometime after the United States’s 2015 deadline.

In the RAC’s 2010 annual report, the association notes they had applied to Industry Canada for a radio spectrum band licence “for possible future PTC deployment.” The licence would facilitate the frequency co-ordination with the United States, while allowing for Canadian locomotives to be equipped with PTC radios without the burden of applying for individual licences for each.

Smith from Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, however, holds a less rosy view of the situation. He says he believes that an advanced technological upgrade to Canadian rail safety will only become reality when one of the more than 800 collisions and derailments in Canada has averaged between 2006 to 2010 results in a catastrophic disaster. “From our standpoint we can lobby, from the union aspect, but we certainly don’t hold the purse strings,” he says.

Maryse Durette, an Ottawa-based spokesperson for Transport Canada, says system providers have recommended the federal regulator wait for the full implementation and functionality of PTC in the United States before considering the technology for Canada. “Transport Canada has met with technology providers to understand the implications of positive train control systems implementation,” Durette adds.

While administrative controls have improved, the Canadian standard in train safety technology has remained unchanged since 1986, Holbrook notes. That was the year when human error resulted in a collision between a VIA Rail passenger train and a Canadian National freight train that claimed 23 and injured 95 in Hinton, Alberta.

That said, Jeanes is of the mind that “rail travel is still one of the safest modes of travel in Canada and worldwide in terms of your risk of actually being in an accident, and surviving an accident without death or serious injury.

”From 2006 to 2010, there was an average of 72 accidents involving passenger trains each year. If accidents involving trespassing at train crossings are excluded, that number drops to an average of three fatalities and two serious injuries a year, notes information from the TSB.

Until an automated, physical defence system is in place as a fail-safe against operator mistakes, fatal derailments like the one in Burlington — although rare — remain a very real risk for those who work and ride on Canada’s rails.

Holbrook believes that safety systems should be designed with redundancy and that error-making possibility in mind. “To err is human, so design a safety system that will compensate for those errors.”

Greg Burchell is editorial assistant of OHS Canada.


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