This article is reprinted from the Edmonton Journal (link at bottom) on June 16th, 2010."

Harper government finally heeds labour's decade-long call for tougher rail safety regulations

By William Brehl, Freelance June 16, 2010
The Teamsters and the Tories.

It has a strange, ironic ring to it. And it is especially timely given the serious train derailment last week near Red Deer that closed Highway 2A.

Alliteration aside, talking about the Teamsters and the Tories together gives someone like me who has spent his life advocating the advancement of the labour movement somewhat of an uneasy feeling.

This government in Ottawa does not exactly see things from a labour perspective.

Still, there you have it. The Teamsters and the Tories see one thing the same: public safety when it comes to Canada's railways. Our union has been advocating tighter rail safety controls for almost a decade.

And on June 4 — just three days before five tanker cars carrying glycol jumped the track south of Red Deer — Stephen Harper's Conservative government introduced Bill C-33 that will tighten rail safety rules and get railways like Canadian National and Canadian Pacific to put the well-being of Canadians ahead of profits.

No doubt CN and CP will rail on that these proposed rules are unnecessary. They'll probably work the government behind the scenes to ease up.

But any such campaign won't work. Transport Canada knows the numbers — and so does the Harper government.

Since 1999, when a previous government eased up the rules, there have been thousands of safety violations and more than 10,000 railway accidents and derailments.

If you do the math, that is three incidents each and every day in Canada. Most are minor, some have caused evacuations and even loss of life, and many had potential for disaster as these trains carried flammable, toxic and ultra dangerous commodities.

For years, the railways have watched infrastructure decay. They relied, in large part, on good luck and gravity to keep the trains on the rails.

It is enlightening that Harper's government has signalled an end to this game of Russian roulette.

Ottawa gets it: public safety is not about politics. Or management-union relations, for that matter.

As far as I know, this government is the first in history to include people like me from labour to sit at the table while considering changes to rail safety rules.

In a statement announcing the changes, Ottawa promised to improve railway safety in Canada because of "the importance of a safe and secure national rail transportation system, not only to communities across the country but also to Canada's economic well-being."

Public safety is a people issue; especially when the millions of Canadians who live within a kilometre or two of a railway line have the most to lose if tankers filled with anhydrous ammonia, sodium chlorate or molten sulphur derail and explode near their homes.

That is why I expect all political parties in Ottawa to get behind this initiative and pass the new rules through Parliament speedily.

The proposed amendments to the Railway Safety Act will hold railways accountable when it comes to safety and penalize rule breakers. They will give Transport Canada the power to:

– -Crack down on rule breakers with tough new monetary penalties and increased judicial penalties;

– -Strengthen safety requirements for railway companies;

– -Create whistleblower protection for employees who raise safety concerns;

– -Require each railway to have an executive legally responsible for safety.

Sadly, the role of third-party watchdogs at Transport Canada was reduced in the late 1990s and derailments increased.

Our union has roughly 3,000 members working at CP Rail, maintaining the infrastructure. We've seen firsthand the deterioration in track and equipment — the biggest reason for derailments.

The railways have proven they cannot police themselves when it comes to protecting public safety, so this government (with urging from us and others) has stepped in to give third-party watchdogs more teeth.

That is why the Teamsters and the Tories may sound like strange bedfellows, but on this important issue we are not.

Come a general election, I doubt you'd find many Teamsters canvassing for Tory votes — and I doubt Harper would be out in the hustings looking for Teamsters support.

But on this issue he will have our full support and we'll do anything we can to help raise Canadian rail safety to the level of Europe, where rail safety has long been a priority.

William Brehl is president of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference's Maintenance of Way Employees Division, based in Ottawa, and a member of Transport Canada's Advisory Council on Railway Safety.

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