By Richard Valdmanis
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada has issued an emergency order to railways detailing how many handbrakes they must set on unattended trains to prevent deadly runaways, and will hire new staff to conduct an "audit blitz" of rail companies' safety systems.
The changes are the latest in a slew of regulatory moves in North America since a train carrying crude oil crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year, killing 47 people and highlighting the dangers from a surge in oil transport by rail.
The announcement on Wednesday came in response to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board's final report in August on the Lac-Megantic crash that found shortfalls in railway safety culture and federal oversight of the industry.
"We will always remember what happened in Lac-Megantic. I do believe that the measures that we are announcing today will improve railway safety, and make the transportation industry more accountable," Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said.
Canada's Conservative government has already imposed several new regulations in the wake of Lac-Megantic, including toughening tank car safety and requiring railways do risk assessments, produce emergency response plans, and improve the security of parked trains.
As part of the new rules, Transport Canada said railway operators had to test the handbrakes they set and use other "physical structures" to complement them.
(Details of the announcement: http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=897699)
In the Lac-Megantic crash, a train laden with light crude as volatile as gasoline had been left unattended on a main line several kilometers up a gentle slope. Investigators said the conductor had not set enough handbrakes and the airbrakes had been released after a fire broke out in the engine.
Transport Canada said it will hire about 10 new auditors and begin an "audit blitz" on railway companies' safety systems. In some cases the regulator will also require rail companies, mainly short lines, to submit reports on how they train their staff, Raitt said.
Raitt said the government will bring in new monetary penalties for railways whose internal safety systems fall short. In its August report, the Transportation Safety Board found that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, which operated the train that crashed in Lac-Megantic, had developed a safety management system in 2002, but had not fully implemented it.
The watchdog said Transport Canada needed to be more hands on with safety management systems, making sure they work rather than just check that they exist.
Transport Canada said it will also hire engineering and scientific experts to help research the properties of different kinds of crude oils carried by railways, and launch inspections to ensure they are properly labeled on trains.
"Crude oil is something that needs to be moved in the country," Raitt said. "Our job is to make sure it is done in the safest way possible."
(Additional reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Jeffreys Hodgson and Benkoe)