François Laporte is the National President of Teamsters Canada, the country’s largest transportation and logistics unionIn the rail sector, the Teamsters represent workers at Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, VIA Rail, and at numerous shortlines. The union also represents workers operating commuter trains in Canada’s three largest cities. 

Ten years ago today, a runaway 74-car freight train hauling crude oil rolled downhill and derailed. The result was a catastrophic explosion which flattened the small town of Lac-Mégantic and left 47 people dead. 

The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster continues to cast a long shadow on rail transportation. And sadly, we have yet to learn the right lessons. Little in terms of regulation, or their proper implementation, has fundamentally changed since the calamity. 

Each year, Canada grapples with hundreds of derailments, fires, explosions, collisions, and cases of runaway trains. Dangerous goods are often involved in these accidents. Each occurrence has the potential for disaster: post-Lac-Mégantic, 21 railway employees died and 110 were seriously injured on the job.   

The small handful of changes announced in Lac-Mégantic’s wake, like slightly upgrading the DOT-111 tank cars involved in the derailment, hardly touch on the major safety issues besieging the rial industry.  

That so far, we have avoided another disaster on the scale of Lac-Mégantic is pure luck.

Transport Canada appears to be facing real challenges enforcing its own rules and regulations. 

In the absence of strong and effective enforcement, the burden of protecting workers and the public has often fallen on the shoulders of our union. 

Just last month, after years of work by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, a federal judge found Canadian Pacific in contempt of court. The railway disobeyed an order to stop overworking train crews. Thinking itself above the law, the company had ignored fatigue rules for years because they could get away with it. Successive governments had failed to stop Canadian Pacific from abusing workers.

The science on crew fatigue is settled and the threat is real. Railroaders who have been up for 17 hours can be as impaired as a drunk driver with a .05 blood-alcohol volume. A full 24 hours without sleep is comparable to .10 blood-alcohol volume. Think of the potential for danger the next time you see a 4-kilometre-long train snaking its way through your neighbourhood. 

Rail workers may work no longer than 12 hours under Transport Canada regulations, with few exceptions. The cap can go down to 10 hours under certain provisions of our collective agreements. But Canadian Pacific’s own data suggest that thousands of situations continue to occur annually where train crews are not relieved from work in time. Right now, as you read these lines, fatigued railroaders across this country are operating trains when they should be resting. 

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, an independent agency responsible for investigating railway accidents, keeps a list of major issues affecting rail safety. Fatigue and poor regulatory oversight figure prominently on the watchlist. The agency has criticized Transport Canada’s monitoring as “not sufficient,” allowing the recurrence of hazards year after year without serious intervention. The agency wants Transport Canada to demonstrate its ability to enforce the rules and correct rail companies’ unsafe practices.

The Teamsters will always step up for the safety of workers and Canadians. But there is only so much we can do alone. No union can or should supplant the role of government regulators in ensuring a safe rail system for Canadians.

When it comes to rail safety, the stakes are huge. And until Ottawa musters the courage to confront the rail companies, another Lac-Mégantic can happen at any time.