Keeping an eye on the track

ISSN 2369-873X

21 February 2013
Posted by: Kirby Jang

On the morning of July 29, 2011, a VIA Rail passenger train struck a pickup truck at a crossing near the town of Glencoe, Ontario. The locomotive and all four coaches derailed, injuring six passengers. The driver of the pickup was killed. For the families involved, it was an unexpected tragedy. For our investigators, it was all too familiar, one more unnecessary death that could have been prevented.

We know that the best way to stop an accident from happening again is to understand not just what happened, but why. That’s why we look at a wide range of issues, and when something becomes part of a larger pattern, we make sure to draw attention to it.

One issue that has come up far too often is the number of passenger trains colliding with vehicles. This problem is especially serious in the Quebec City Windsor corridor, our nation’s busiest stretch of rail, and where more than a quarter of these collisions happen.

Passenger trains colliding with vehicles

The problem is a combination of the way railway crossings are designed, the warnings available to vehicles, and driver behaviour. Too often, the crossing sightlines leave vehicle drivers without enough time or space to react when they notice an oncoming train. Even if visibility isn’t an issue, vehicles with low-clearance, such as tractor trailers, can get stuck at crossings with even slight inclines.

The good news is that over the past two years Transport Canada has looked closely at the Quebec-Windsor corridor and is requiring warning systems with gates to be installed at all public crossings where train speeds exceed 128 km/h.

The railways, too, have been active. CN, for example, has upgraded the warning systems on dozens of public and private crossings throughout the corridor, as well as closed or scheduled for closure up to 40 more.

But the accident rate for crossing collisions hasn’t decreased, which means more needs to be done. Statistics have shown that “active” defences such as crossing gates, flashing lights or bells can reduce train-vehicle collisions up to six times more effectively than stop signs or the large black-and-white X familiar to most drivers. However, only one third of Canada’s approximately 16,000 public crossings have these active defences.

What makes this even more complicated is Canada’s growing population. Urban sprawl, especially inside the corridor, means more cars and trains are being added to the mix. Currently, the busy Montreal – Toronto corridor can see two dozen passenger trains daily, and VIA Rail recently increased the number of trips per day between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. That may be great for travellers, but with over 700 public crossings, and passenger trains that travel up to 100 mph, the risks simply can’t be ignored.

To reduce these risks, we’ve made a number of recommendations over the last 10 years, including the update of the grade-crossing regulations. While Transport Canada has admittedly done much work to develop new rules, that process has been going on since 1988—nearly a quarter century.

Here’s why this matters: new regulations would bring improved standards for both sightlines and crossing angles, meaning vehicles and trains would be better able to see what’s coming, and from greater distances. Approach grades—the slope in the road leading over a crossing—would be improved, meaning fewer tractor trailers could become deadly roadblocks. All crossings would also require safety assessments. These changes would go a long way to improving crossing safety.

Since 1995, more than 100 Canadians have been killed in crossing accidents with passenger trains, 27 of them in the Quebec Windsor corridor. Without new grade crossing regulations, and without people becoming more aware of the dangers at railway crossings, accidents like the one at Glencoe will continue to occur.

That’s why we’ve flagged this risk on our Watchlist. As we continue to monitor progress, we will investigate and announce what we find publicly. Because you don’t just expect the safest rail transportation system possible, you deserve it.

Image of Kirby Jang

With both a Masters in Civil Engineering and Business Administration, Kirby Jang joined the TSB in 2003 as the Manager of Regional Operations. Since then, he has played a key role in over 80 rail accidents and became Director of the Railway/Pipeline Investigation Branch in 2009. Kirby enjoys travelling and spending time with his son and daughter at the local hockey arenas during the winter.

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