Train operators are breaking more rules, while rail industry addresses safety concerns

A recent report that suggests there has been an increase in broken rules and safety concerns in Canada’s rail industry underlines concerns expressed by Canada’s auditor general. In short, we need to take precautions now.

CBC News
obtained records from the Transportation Safety Board that paint a concerning picture of apparent lapses and potential negligence when it comes to following safety measures.

The records indicate a steady increase in the reported number of "movement exceeding the limits of authority" claims a sort of catch-all category that describes instances of trains speeding, failing to obey signs or entering restricted areas.

[ Related: Runaway train incidents 'shocking,' Olivia Chow says ]

According to the report, there were a record 120 such instances in 2012, and 1,353 over the past 13 years. Those numbers include 158 trains classified as runaway and another 300 instances that involved uncontrolled trains recorded in other ways.

The numbers don't do the matter justice. The full report includes instances of near-collisions between trains, other reports of conductors realizing they've been on the wrong track for 20 kilometres and construction crews escaping a bridge before a passenger train charged across. That instance was classified as a "near-miss."

Smoke rises from derailed rail cars which were carrying crude oil in Lac Megantic, Que., July 6, 2013. THE CANADIAN … The numbers paint a portrait of rail transport that is more troubling than the public image formed following the fatal Lac-Megantic, Que., runaway explosion in June and a gas-laden derailment near Edmonton in October.

In the following months, debate has swirled about whether safety measures in Canada's rail industry are adequate and what change should be introduced. Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt ordered rail companies to alert communities when dangerous goods are coming through, a move lauded by safety experts and community leaders.

But dangerous goods are only half the story. There are still major concerns to be addressed if hundreds of trains are rolling free, travelling along improper corridors and, as the CBC News report suggests, being sparsely investigated.

[ Related: CN says redesigning tanker cars most important issue from Lac-Megantic ]

NDP transportation critic Olivia Chow says tougher regulations, fines and better reporting procedures are necessary in such cases.

"It's shocking that Canadians have no idea there are all these runaway and uncontrolled trains that are across Canada. These kinds of incidents should not be kept secret from the general public," Chow told reporters.

"There has to be penalties. If not, the practices of rail companies become sloppy, and accidents happen, tragedy happens."

The concerns run in line with a recent report from Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, who found that there is a need to improve the industry regulations, including the collection of data on safety performance of federal railways.

The reports also found that Transport Canada has yet to establish a proper way to audit safety management systems, and needs to ensure its inspectors have the skills to conduct safety audits.

For the record, Transport Canada has agreed with Ferguson’s findings and promised to follow up with all his recommendations. But that doesn’t mean the rail industry shouldn't consider taking more measures to ensure transparency and proper follow up.