Canadian National Railway (CN) received the lowest grade level possible on implementing safety management systems (SMS) that are designed to offset accidents and other safety hazards, according to a report released by the Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities on Rail Safety in Canada.
Sparked by an increase in recent rail accidents in Canada over the last few years that, according to the Committee, have caused “serious” repercussions in terms of “human fatalities and environmental damage,” the report cited CN for several safety concerns that include failed communication between senior management and frontline workers on clearly defining management’s commitment to safety, limited training for newly hired employees and creating a “culture of fear” for workers with regard to non-punitive reporting on safety violations.
The Committee stressed it has serious concerns regarding both the delays and the manner in which the SMS has been implemented by the railway. On a scale of one to five, with five being the optimum level, CN was at level 1 or 2. “This is not, in our view, acceptable progress,” the report noted.
The Advisory Panel for the Railway Safety Act Review, which was enacted last February, reported that CN along with other railroads and Transport Canada have not made sufficient progress in attaining this goal and noted that safety has not been a “high enough priority for the railroads.”
“This raises serious concern about CN’s safety record,” said Barrington Village president Karen Darch. “Canadian National wants to quadruple train traffic in U.S. communities at a time when it’s under serious scrutiny in its own backyard.”
These findings come as CN faces increased opposition from community groups and elected officials, including Senator Barack Obama, Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Melissa Bean who oppose the purchase of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway (EJ&E) by CN. The Barrington Communities Against CN Rail Congestion and The Regional Answer to CN (TRAC) represent the interests of more than three dozen municipalities, counties and other community groups. The coalition maintains that the increase in freight traffic will cause additional safety and environmental risks and points to the report’s findings as evidence to their claim.
“CN must be held accountable and explain how it will make safety a top priority before this acquisition is even considered,” said Mayor Thomas Weisner of Aurora. “It is the STB’s responsibility to seriously evaluate these findings before deciding the fate of this acquisition.”
“CN’s strict adherence to a rules-based approach, focused largely on disciplinary actions when mistakes are made, has instilled a ‘culture of fear and discipline’ and is counter to effective safety management systems,” the Advisory Panel stated. “CN needs to acknowledge this openly and take concrete steps to improve.”
The report, which was released last month, provides recommendations to both government regulatory agencies and railroad companies on how to improve the industry’s safety record.
“Canadian National wants to build a rail superhighway through our communities but in light of this recent report it should be prohibited from expanding any U.S. operations until it can prove it is committed to operating in a safe and responsible manner,” according to DuPage County Board member Jim Healy.
CN was among several rail companies and groups of key stakeholders including employees, environmentalists and the general public that participated in the study. However, CN received the most scrutiny for its failure to adequately address safety issues ever since railroads were required seven years ago to implement SMSs.
In June, coalition members called on Congressional leaders to pass legislation to augment current rail law to reflect the needs of communities in the 21st century. Currently the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) is reviewing CN’s proposed acquisition of the EJ&E. The STB has the authority to approve, deny or approve this acquisition with contingencies.