The reason an Ottawa-region transit bus drove into the path of an oncoming Via Rail train at a suburban level crossing, killing five passengers and the driver, is still unclear but it's reignited the debate over the safety of at-grade railway crossings.
According to Transport Canada, almost half of all railway-related deaths and injuries occur because of collisions at railway crossings.
Operation Lifesaver, a partnership between government agencies and the railway industry, says 25 people died and 21 were seriously hurt in 169 collisions at Canada's 37,000 crossings in 2011. The Railway Association of Canada, which speaks for the industry, said collisions have declined dramatically since 1980 because of a focus on safety.
But the Transportation Safety Board's data shows crossing fatalities rose to 29 last year out of a total of 82 rail-related deaths. Most of them involve people killed while trespassing on rail lines. There were 32 crossing-related injuries.
The TSB has been concerned about the high risk of collision between passenger trains and motor vehicles in busy rail corridors for several years, CTV News reported.
“Transport Canada must implement new grade crossing regulations, develop enhanced standards or guidelines for certain types of crossing signs, and continue its leadership role in crossing safety assessments,” the agency says on its website, according to CTV News. “A comprehensive solution must also include further improving public awareness of the dangers at railway crossings.”
Ottawa is helping fund a program to make safety-related improvements at crossings, kicking in a maximum of $550,000 towards any single project.
But as the Globe and Mail reports, the federal government finds itself at odds with the railway industry, including Via, and municipalities over the cost of implementing proposed new safety rules.
The government last year proposed draft regulations for a number of safety improvements, including improving sight lines at crossings, upgrading existing crossings and cutting the speed of trains.
The effort was intended to boost safety at crossings in places like the site of Wednesday's accident; formerly rural areas that have seen mushrooming residential development and the consequent increased traffic flow on once lightly used crossings.
But Via Rail balked at the proposed changes because of the cost burden to the passenger service, which gets a mix of private and public funding to operate, the Globe said.
“Generally, and of most concern to Via Rail, we agree that the proposed policy and associated standard will improve safety at both new crossings and existing crossings, we are concerned that Via will be burdened with the costs of upgrades on infrastructure that belongs to the freight railways,” Panetta wrote, according to the Globe.
The concern about costs was echoed by various municipalities, the Globe reported. The City of Ottawa didn't submit a comment but the Globe said it dropped tentative plans to replace the level crossing at the accident site with an overpass due to public opposition.
Transport Action Ontario president Peter Miasek told CTV News that grade separation (an underpass or overpass) must be considered once the daily number of trains and cars using a crossing passes a certain threshold.
“When train or auto traffic goes up, it definitely needs to be looked at because one of these incidents with fatalities shuts the whole system down for a long period of time and causes major disruptions,” Miasek said.
“The other advantage of a grade separation of course is the reduced impact on automobile traffic. If you have a train going through every half hour and it takes a couple of minutes, then you’re going to get a lot of traffic back-up.”