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Federal data on railway accidents are ‘inaccessible,’ researcher says

A firefighter stands close to the remains of a train wreckage in Lac Megantic in this file photo taken July 8, 2013. The rail firm involved in a tanker train disaster that killed 47 people in a Quebec town last month will be shut down because it does not have enough insurance to cover clean-up costs and other damages, a Canadian government agency said. The Canadian Transportation Agency said it would suspend the operating license of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) and its Canadian subsidiary from August 20.

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Federal data on railway accidents in Canada are "worryingly inaccessible," a Calgary-based researcher says, making it difficult for policy makers to track changing safety concerns and develop new regulations.

Jennifer Winter, a researcher from the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, wrote in a recent paper that accurate data on the number and types of rail accidents is necessary to determine how safe Canada's system is in comparison to other countries and to chart accident trends over time. Ms. Winter examined data held by Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board and Statistics Canada.

"The statistics that might provide the answers are worryingly inaccessible, sometimes conflicting, and in certain cases not available at all," she wrote in a paper made public Wednesday afternoon.

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The federal government has come under increased pressure during the past year to respond to concerns about rail safety after the devastating train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Que., which killed 47 people last July. The train was carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which is now understood to be more prone to exploding in an accident than traditional crude.

Ms. Winter said she looked at data held at the federal level and found that the number of train trips in Canada is not reported, while information on train kilometers and average number of freight train accidents is not available after 2009.

In addition, data from Transport Canada is only available through the department's annual reports, making it difficult for researchers to assess trends over time. There are also differences in the statistics reported by Transport Canada and the TSB, a lack of consistency that is "concerning," Ms. Winter says, given that both use the same legislation to define rail accidents.

In contrast, the United States collects and makes public downloadable data including accident time, weather conditions, location, cars involved and other factors, Ms. Winter said. "With more comprehensive data, we would be able to say what contributes to accidents, and on that information we would have better informed regulations and policies," she said in an interview.

However, a spokesman from the Transportation Safety Board said the agency collects more information than Ms. Winter's paper suggests. Jean Laporte, the TSB's chief operating officer, said Wednesday afternoon that the agency focuses on highlights when it publishes statistical information on its website, and it also presents different information in its annual and monthly reports. He said further data be obtained through a request to the agency.

Transport Canada did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for Statistics Canada said its accident information comes from the federal department.

Ms. Winter said the issue of rail safety data is particularly urgent because officials are considering new regulations now, in response to the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que. "My concern is that safety regulations will be changed, but it will happen without knowing the full picture because we just don't have the adequate data," she said.

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Claude Dauphin, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said in a written statement that federal policies and regulations must be based on detailed statistics, including risks that are specific to local communities.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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