President of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference Maintenance of Way Employees Division

23 April 2008

The Globe and Mail

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It's been said a hero is someone who can hang on one minute longer. Faced with almost certain death, railway engineer Lonnie Plasko was a true hero, hanging on longer than most of us would have.

One year ago today, Lonnie Plasko died while preventing an out-of-control and damaged train from slamming into a crowded parking lot and a pipeline carrying toxic chemicals in the town of Trail, B.C. This week also marks the 25th International Day of Mourning for Workers Killed and Injured on the Job, a date all the more poignant because Lonnie had been celebrating his 25th anniversary as an engineer with CP Rail when he was killed.

Lonnie's death was not an isolated incident. Serious workplace accidents have become all too common on the railway. Most of the fatalities occur within the ranks of the on-track workers, those who inspect, maintain and repair the track infrastructure.

At long last, the federal government is getting involved. A House of Commons committee is studying how to make Canada's railways safer, not only for workers but for the public at large. So many dangerous commodities, after all, are carried by train through populated urban areas, and we cannot afford another derailment such as the one in Mississauga in 1979. A Transport Canada blue-ribbon panel also studied rail safety and tabled its findings this month to the Commons committee, which will report to the House next month.

This is life-and-death work. In its own 2008 Safety Plan and Focus, CP Rail acknowledges that, in 2007, its operations saw an alarming 41.6-per-cent rise in train-accident frequency, leading to a 3.5-per-cent rise in the frequency of personal injuries during the year. It concludes: “Our personal injury frequency is still significantly higher than the average of the other Class 1 railways …” Against that backdrop, the federal Railway Safety Act has not been subject to an independent review in years, despite deregulation of the industry and the use of much longer and much heavier trains.

Judging by events on Canada's rails recently, the committee's work is overdue. Here's a snapshot of occurrences on CP track alone: On March 23, more than a dozen coal cars derailed and overturned in the Rogers Pass between Golden and Revelstoke, B.C. On March 27, just north of Toronto, the main line was closed after a train's broken wheel tore up the track. On April 1, near Cranbrook , B.C., a train derailed, putting nine cars on the ground and spilling dangerous commodities, including zinc. On April 5, in downtown Medicine Hat, two engines on a train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed. On April 7, there was a derailment involving three trains carrying dangerous commodities just outside Weyburn, Sask.

These accidents and the injuries and environmental damage they cause are the logical and predictable results of the continuous degradation of our railway system. Despite these facts, workers charged with the safe operation of Canada's railways have no seat on the Transport Canada panel that is reviewing the legislation. The panel is made up of government officials, lawyers and a former railway executive. But the job will never be done properly without direct input from the workers who check the railway system's condition every day, and who have the most to lose if it is unsafe.

While trains have been getting longer and heavier, placing more wear and tear on the rails, track maintenance crews are denied full access to the highest-priority sections of track so as not to slow down the flow of cargo. It's simple math: More use plus less preventive maintenance equals a rise in accidents.

Both the Commons committee and the advisory panel need to put public safety first and foremost. Let's give people like Lonnie Plasko and the others a voice at the table today so they don't become dead heroes tomorrow.

Printed April 23, 2008, Globe & Mail

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