Chapter 2: State of Rail Safety in Canada

An important initial step in conducting the Railway Safety Act (RSA) Review was to examine and understand the current state of rail safety in Canada. We examined published statistics on rail accidents and incidents and commissioned independent research on this subject. Using this information, we examined the safety record of railways in terms of total accidents, category of accident (i.e., main track, non-main track, grade crossing, trespasser and dangerous goods), and severity.

In assessing the results, it became clear that the publicly available data has limitations. In our examination of the information, we identified certain key factors that make it difficult to rely exclusively on the numbers and draw firm conclusions about the overall state of rail safety. These included the following:

  • changes to the reporting regulations implemented in 1992 affected the number of accidents being reported;
  • accident rates are not normalized in a manner that effectively takes into account fluctuations in railway traffic over time;
  • data does not reflect changes in the size of the rail network under federal jurisdiction, such as the proliferation of short lines in the 1990s and the July 2004 CN takeover of BC Rail;
  • comprehensive severity data is not available to accurately assess the consequences and impact of rail accidents;
  • the Transportation Safety Board (TSB)1 database does not include data on provincial railways, making it impossible to get a complete picture of the state of rail safety in Canada; and
  • the TSB recently clarified its reporting requirements and adjusted its statistics for the previous five years to deal with a difference in interpretation of the reporting requirements.

Despite these shortcomings, the Panel was able to make certain observations about the state of rail safety in Canada but the numbers tell only part of the story. In examining the data, the Panel was sensitive to the fact that the state of rail safety also has to be measured in terms of whether the risk of accidents and the resulting damage to people, property or the environment is acceptable to the public.

2.1 Accidents 1989-2006

Looking strictly at the total number of accidents reported to the TSB in the years since the RSA was implemented, as depicted in Figure 2.1, there are clearly two periods during which accidents increased – 1992-96 and 2002-05. Several factors contributed to these changes.

Figure 2.1: Total Reported Rail Accidents (1989-2006)2

Figure 2.1: Total Reported Rail Accidents (1989-2006)

The first increase can be attributed partially to new TSB reporting requirements, put in place in 1992, which resulted in new cases being reported. The TSB notes that the full effects of the new requirements were incorporated by the end of 1994. This makes it difficult to compare pre-1994 and post-1994 data; consequently, the two periods are differentiated in Figure 2.1.

The sale of federal lines to provincial railways probably contributed to the decrease noted between 1997-2002, since statistics were then being collected for a smaller overall network. Similarly, CN's 2004 acquisition of BC Rail undoubtedly accounted for at least part of the recent increase in the total number of reported accidents, since statistics were then being collected for a larger network.3 The acquisition of BC Rail is also noteworthy since it added largely mountain-grade track, which by its very nature, may be inherently more risky. During this period, freight traffic grew steadily.

Examining only the absolute number of rail accidents, however, limits the conclusions that can be made for the reasons outlined at the beginning of this chapter. To better understand trends and whether there has been improvement or deterioration in safety performance in recent years, we looked at different presentations and interpretations of the available data.

2.2 Categories of Accidents

Essential to the understanding of the state of rail safety is an examination of the accidents by category, since each category has differing causes, consequences and trends. Figure 2.2 shows the main categories of rail accidents and their percentage in terms of total accidents for 2006.

Figure 2.2: Distribution of Railway Accidents by Category (2006)4

Figure 2.2: Distribution of Railway Accidents by Category (2006)

Figure 2.3 shows the trends in each of the main categories of accidents for the period 1989-2006.

Figure 2.3: Rail Accidents Excluding Crossing and Trespasser
Accidents (1989-2006)5

Figure 2.3: Rail Accidents Excluding Crossing and Trespasser Accidents (1989-2006)

2.2.1 Main Track Accidents

Main track accidents are collisions and derailments that occur on track between stations or terminals, including branch or feeder lines. Main track accidents accounted for 12.2 per cent of all accidents in 2006. The severity of these accidents varies from minor to significant, though they have the greatest potential for catastrophic impacts that affect public confidence. For instance, recent derailments at Squamish and Lillooet, British Columbia, Montmagny, Quebec and Lake Wabamun, Alberta, were all main track accidents. A lack of comprehensive severity indicators, however, makes it difficult to ascertain whether the severity of accidents is worsening. However, available data does indicate that some 66 per cent of Canadian main track derailments involve five cars or less.6

Since main track collisions occur very infrequently, our focus is main track derailments, the number of which has fluctuated. While it would seem that the recent upward trend (1998-2005) reversed somewhat in 2006, TSB data to July 2007 shows that main track derailments are higher than in 2006 and near the five-year average (2002-06).7 As noted earlier, these are the accidents with the greatest consequences in terms of property and environmental damage. In considering the impacts, the Panel is concerned that there has not been a sufficient reduction in the number of main track derailments.

2.2.2 Non-Main Track Accidents

Non-main track accidents include collisions and derailments that occur primarily in yards or terminals. At 52.8 per cent, non-main track accidents represent the largest category of total accidents, as seen in Figure 2.2.

In examining non-main track collisions and derailments, it is clear that the increase in the total number of accidents (excluding crossing and trespasser accidents) is largely the result of increases in non-main track derailments. These accidents decreased in 2006 and the Panel was pleased to learn that TSB statistics (July 2007 year-to-date) show that the frequency of non-main track derailments continues to decrease from 2006 levels.8 Despite this, the Panel was concerned about the steep increase from 2002-2005 and the fact that there continues to be such a large number of these accidents. We believe that railway companies need to focus more attention on safety in yards.

2.2.3 Crossing and Trespasser Accidents

Crossing accidents occur at road and rail intersections and involve third parties, such as vehicles or pedestrians. Crossing accidents comprised 23.6 per cent of total accidents in 2006. Trespasser accidents involve people trespassing on railway rights-of-way and are distinct from pedestrian accidents that occur at road and rail crossings. In 2006, 2.8 per cent of the total accidents were classified as trespasser accidents.

The impact of crossing and trespasser accidents is devastating for those affected. Since 2001, an average of 84 people have been killed or seriously injured annually as a result of crossing accidents, and an average of 79 people have been killed or seriously injured each year due to trespasser accidents.9

Figure 2.4: Crossing and Trespasser Accidents (1989-2006)10

Figure 2.4: Crossing and Trespasser Accidents (1989-2006)

Figure 2.4 shows that while there is very little evidence of any trend in trespasser accidents, crossing accidents show a clear downward trend from a high of 469 in 1989 to 248 in 2006. In part, this decrease in crossing accidents can be attributed to public education and outreach programs, such as Operation Lifesaver and Direction 2006, and safety improvement programs, such as those funded through the Grade Crossing Improvement Program. These programs are the result of combined efforts by railway companies, Transport Canada, other levels of government, public safety organizations, police, unions and community groups. It is likely that the decrease in accidents has also been affected by the transfer of many crossings to provincial railways, since accidents at those crossings are no longer reflected in the TSB database.

While the number of crossing accidents has decreased, when coupled with trespasser accidents, they remain the cause of almost all railway fatalities and serious injuries. In 2006, for instance, 87 per cent of the total number of serious injuries and fatalities resulting from all types of rail accidents were due to crossing and trespasser accidents. More specifically, in 2006, 142 people were killed or seriously injured as a result of crossing or trespasser accidents.11 Tragically, a proportion of these incidents is due to suicide, and such accidents are difficult to prevent.

While passenger rail operations comprise only a small part of overall railway operations in Canada, given the nature of their operations (involving relatively lighter trains, moving at high speeds), it is not unexpected that the majority of accidents involving passenger trains are crossing and trespasser accidents.12 Nevertheless, the Panel is confident that with sustained effort from all partners, further improvements can be made to prevent crossing and trespasser accidents. Our ideas are discussed further in Chapter 7.

2.2.4 Transportation of Dangerous Goods Accidents and Incidents

The transportation of dangerous goods by rail has grown rapidly over the past decade.13 For CN and CP combined, rail transport of regulated dangerous goods between 1997 and 2006 has grown by close to 60 per cent in terms of thousands of freight cars moved and millions of revenue ton miles. The Panel is pleased to note that, over this same period, reportable accidents and incidents (as defined by the Transportation Safety Board Regulations) involving regulated dangerous goods have declined considerably, as shown in Figure 2.5.14

Figure 2.5: TSB Reportable Rail Accidents and Incidents
Involving Dangerous Goods15

Figure 2.5: TSB Reportable Rail Accidents and Incidents Involving Dangerous Goods

Crossing, trespasser and dangerous goods accidents have been the subject of special public education and funding efforts that demonstrate what can be accomplished when there is a will to continuously improve. The Panel strongly encourages continued government-industry collaboration to improve safety performance in other areas such as non-main track derailments and main track accidents. Given the severity and tragic impact of crossing and trespasser accidents, efforts to reduce them must continue.

2.3 Normalizing Accidents

The Panel agrees with the industry that its safety performance is better reflected when traffic volumes are taken into account by using a normalizing factor. An accident rate per million train miles is commonly used to normalize the number of accidents relative to the amount of railway activity. This normalization adds little to our understanding of accident trends over time, however, since essentially the same picture emerges as was presented in Figure 2.1.16

Various other measures can be used to normalize accident rates, such as accidents per billion gross ton miles or per billion car kilometres. The current practice for normalizing accident rates does not necessarily provide an in-depth understanding of overall safety performance or where improvement is needed. This issue is explored in greater detail in Chapter 6.

2.4 Comparing Rail Safety in Canada and the U.S.

The Panel was also interested in comparing the safety records of Canadian railways with those of similar U.S. operators. Regrettably, due to differences in reporting criteria, it was difficult to make the statistical comparison.

Nonetheless, in determining their overall safety performance, both CN and CP collect data about their extensive U.S. operations, as well as their Canadian operations. This information provides a means for both companies to benchmark their performance against that of their U.S. competitors.

In examining the average number of accidents per million train miles from 1996-2006 for CN and CP's operations (which includes both their U.S. and Canadian operations), the rates are lower than for comparable U.S.-based operators. Interestingly, the accident rates for both CN and CP increase,17 if only the U.S. portion of their operations is considered. This means that their Canadian safety records are having a positive impact on their overall North American safety performance, which is commendable.

In conclusion, while rail continues to be one of the safest modes of transportation and Canada's railways are among the safest in North America, the Panel is concerned that overall safety has not significantly improved since the Railway Safety Act was last amended in 1999. We think that it should have.

The Panel believes that continuous improvement is important to achieving a better safety record. Certain accident categories have seen little improvement in accident rates over time, while others are worsening and have the potential to negatively affect public confidence in the railway system. Nonetheless, we also observed stronger safety records in certain areas and believe they are the result of sustained efforts to improve safety. They demonstrate that it is possible to improve the overall safety of the railway system in Canada. The Panel believes that success depends on both the railway industry and the regulator working together to achieve that common goal.


1 The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) Regulations require that all accidents or incidents in Canada as set out in the Regulations be reported to the Board, making it a major source of Canadian railway occurrence data.

2 Joseph F. Schulman, CPCS Transcom Limited, The State of Rail Safety in Canada (August 2007), Figure 2.1, based on Transportation Safety Board (TSB) data.

3 Ibid. section 2.

4 Based on Schulman, State of Rail Safety, op. cit., Figure 2.2, with updated information from the TSB.

5 Schulman, State of Rail Safety, op. cit., Figure 2.3, based on TSB data.

6 G.W. English and T.W. Moynihan, TranSys Research Ltd., Causes of Accidents and Mitigation Strategies (July 2007), section 2.2.2

7 Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Rail Occurrence and Casualty Statistics for July 2007

8 Ibid., Table 4.

9 Schulman, State of Rail Safety, op. cit., section 2.2.2, based on TSB data.

10 Ibid., Figure 2.4, based on TSB data.

11 Ibid., section 3.2.1.

12 Ibid., section 5.

13 Currently, almost 2,870 substances are considered dangerous goods under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Amendments expected in early 2008 will increase that number to approximately 3,000.

14 Schulman, State of Rail Safety, op. cit., section 6.1.

15 Ibid., Figure 6.4, based on TSB data.

16 Ibid., section 3.1.

17 Ibid., section 8.

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