Ontario government needs to do more to keep railways safe, federal agency says
An independent federal agency is raising concerns about Ontario's management and surveillance of provincially regulated railways after an investigation into a 2019 tragedy revealed several gaps in the Ministry of Transportation’s current systems.
In February, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released the findings of its investigation into an accident in Kitchener when a GO Transit commuter train struck an adult and a child at a public crossing in 2019. The investigation raised serious concerns about the Ontario government’s ongoing processes for monitoring its railways.
“As a result of the investigation, the Board is concerned that the Province of Ontario does not provide effective safety oversight of provincially regulated railways,” the TSB stated.
In the 2019 incident, the crossing gates, warning bells and flashing lights were activated as a Canadian National Railway (CN) freight train was performing switching operations—which can involve the moving and shifting of multiple cars in a train—and occupying the multi-track crossing in Kitchener. On the main track, a GO Transit commuter train was travelling west into Kitchener. Unaware of the approaching train, two pedestrians began to cross when they were struck. Both individuals sustained serious injuries and were airlifted to a local hospital.
The investigation found that despite the clear need for thorough safety oversight, none of the parties involved—CN, Metrolinx, the Region of Waterloo and the MTO-–were aware of the hazards that existed. The pedestrians crossed the tracks despite being aware of the warning gates and lights, but seemed to associate them with the freight train exiting the crossing and not the approaching GO train. The investigation determined CN’s use of the crossing for switching operations resulted in the warning devices being frequently activated — sometimes in excess of the five-minute regulated limit — which led pedestrians to disregard these warnings and adopt the risky habit of trying to cross the tracks while they were activated.
“This accident illustrates the critical and pervasive issue of railway crossing safety, which is the second leading cause of fatalities in the railway sector,” TSB chair Kathy Fox explained in a February 9 press release. “Crossing safety is a shared responsibility. Pedestrians and motorists need to obey the rules at crossings; and the railways, road authorities and regulators need to communicate with each other when risks are identified and take appropriate action to improve safety and prevent further crossing accidents.”
The investigation raised a number of serious questions about the Ministry of Transportation’s current rail safety regulations. The disturbing findings include the lack of a provincial regulatory framework or regulations for oversight of railways and the absence of employees with the technical knowledge to oversee the complex systems that crisscross the province.
“The MTO also does not have employees with the technical knowledge, experience, and expertise required to oversee the safety of railway operations; rather, it relies on various agreements with other parties in an effort to provide oversight,” the TSB report states.
A railway inspector is seen crossing over a dangerous path along the Milton Line in Mississauga last July.
(The Pointer files)
Although the Ministry is responsible for safety management on provincially regulated railways, it has no overarching framework in place to govern operations and relies on safety inspection agreements with other agencies, including Transport Canada (TC) and Metrolinx, to meet the requirements for engineering and aid in complying with the standards set out in federal rules and regulations.
Metrolinx, which manages rail systems in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, oversees the operations of UP Express and the GO Transit regional public transit train system, which includes roughly over 420 kilometers of rail lines, 337 kilometers of which are owned by the agency. In 2019, it transported an average of about 229,000 riders daily—the highest daily ridership in Canada.
As the umbrella organization overseeing these agreements, the Ministry is supposed to receive all TC inspection reports and resolve any issues arising from these inspections. However, the investigation notes MTO had not been receiving TC inspection reports. It also found the Ministry has no qualified employees to evaluate the reports received.
The Ministry also oversees implementation of the Metrolinx Act, which the TSB found to be insufficient legislation, lacking any specific safety requirements. Since the Act does not include safety-related provisions or offence caveats for violating them, “it does not provide the Province of Ontario with a framework for taking enforcement action for safety-related deficiencies, when appropriate, against Metrolinx or other provincial railways operating on Metrolinx-owned property,” the report notes. While TC inspectors can identify safety hazards and aid Metrolinx in mitigating the risks, they do not have the authority to compel Metrolinx or other provincial railways operating on Metrolinx-owned property to take action to address identified safety hazards.
“Given the current complex MTO regulatory framework that involves multiple agreements, there are gaps in the oversight processes that can lead to occasions when the MTO will not be able to provide effective safety oversight,” the investigation states.
The lack of oversight and effective safety mechanisms is a poignant reminder for many in Mississauga, which had its own recent tragedy unfold when a four-year-old girl was struck and killed by a GO Train on the Milton Line last July. On the night of the accident, witnesses say they heard the train’s horn blare out for an extended period of time before the sound of the brakes.
After the incident, the TSB announced it would be investigating along with Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway and Metrolinx, including analyzing questions surrounding the protections around rail lines.
“Following our deployment to the accident site, we have done an extensive review of the information gathered and have not identified any new safety action to advance rail transportation safety based on the circumstances of this tragic occurrence,” a TSB spokesperson said in an email update to The Pointer, adding “there will be no further TSB follow-up action or activities.”
“Maintaining the fencing, in the area of the occurrence, falls under the responsibility of the railway,” the spokesperson explained in a separate email correspondence.
The rail corridor is used by Metrolinx for the Milton GO Line but is owned and operated by CP Rail, according to the Ontario government website. CP is responsible, according to the Railway Safety Act, for installing and maintaining fencing. Trains, similar to cars, use specific speeds in certain zones. Metrolinx told The Pointer, at the time, the zone where the accident occurred limits trains to 60 miles per hour, or 96 kilometers per hour.
The accident happened near the Dundas Street bridge, where Hensall Circle loops underneath. On the north side of the tracks, a Peel Condominium Corporation apartment building shares a backyard with the railway where a large gap has existed in a section of fence leading out to the tracks for at least the last two years, according to a resident who spoke with The Pointer at the time of the incident. Industrial spaces, warehouses and small businesses line the south side of the tracks. On the south side there is a makeshift pathway that residents say people use as a shortcut to get across the tracks. A Pointer investigation that followed found multiple places on the GO rail lines where it would be easy to access the tracks. It is unclear if CP was aware of the gaps in the fence prior to this incident.
Fence repairs by CP workers happened after a young girl was killed on the tracks in July 2022.
(The Pointer files)
According to reports from Operation Lifesaver (OL), an organization educating Canadians on the dangers of railways, there were 66 train-related fatalities across the country in 2022. The organization also reported 41 incidents involving serious injuries involving railway crossings and trespassing. In the last decade, 1,055 trespassing incidents have resulted in 681 deaths and 303 serious injuries. Dangerous track crossings over the last decade have resulted in 2,662 incidents recorded by OL with 345 ending in a fatality and 404 serious injuries.
This alarming incident, and the 2019 event in Kitchener, has raised a lot of questions about railway safety and how to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. Investigations like the one undertaken by the Transit Safety Board reflect the grim reality that train-related accidents are happening across the rail lines in Ontario. It also presents an opportunity to provide a better understanding of how the Provincial government can its current railway management practices to preempt future accidents.
With recent tragedies surfacing, the Ministry has identified a need to update the oversight framework for urban and regional rail transit in Ontario that would better support the province’s growing rail network and the diversity of operators. Since the 2019 incident, the MTO has re-examined its system so that it now receives TC inspection reports. Early in 2021, the Ministry began a review of the safety oversight framework for provincial railways.
“We are reviewing the report’s findings as part of our continuous work to enhance rail safety and oversight across the province’s regulated railways,” an MTO spokesperson said in an email.
“Prior to the release of this report, Minister [Caroline] Mulroney directed ministry staff to conduct a complete review focussed on exploring avenues to strengthen and enhance provincial rail safety oversight - this work is already well underway.”
In January 2022, the MTO updated its agreements with TC and Metrolinx to strengthen the Ministry’s authority to verify that non-compliances and deficiencies that may arise in any future inspection reports are appropriately addressed if corrective action has not been taken by the agencies, who will be required to comply with the direction issued as part of the updated agreements. Updates also included formalizing the process for the MTO to receive inspection reports from TC inspectors and updating the rules, standards, and regulations to reflect the current applicable federal requirements.
“The ministry is enhancing rail safety and oversight across the province, including recommendations and options for the development of a rail safety oversight framework for urban and regional rail. This work will help strengthen existing legislation for all provincial shortline railways,” the spokesperson explained. “As part of our ongoing work, MTO will continue to work closely with its agencies, including Metrolinx and the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission to ensure the continued safety of our regulated railways.”
The board said it’s encouraged the Ministry has identified a need to update the oversight framework for rail transit in the province, however, no framework has been established yet according to the investigation.
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