Safety rules without oversight mean very little

When a railcar loaded with crude oil crashed and exploded in the centre of a small Quebec town last summer, the country was riveted Рand rightly horrified. The incident destroyed much of downtown Lac M̩gantic and killed 47 people.

It was, by damage and death toll, the worst rail accident in Canada’s history.

It was also, according to critics of the country’s rail system, a tragic spotlight on just how destructive such an event can be, despite its rarity.

It’s unusual that an accident has just one cause, and the recently released Transportation Safety Board report on the Lac Mégantic disaster confirms that everything from human error to mechanical problems played into the catastrophe.

But among the most damning was their conclusion that lax safety practices – by the railway company itself, but also in follow-up and enforcement by Transport Canada – played a key role.

Locally, railway traffic has largely been a source of conflict due to noise and rumbling for residents living nearby.

But derailments are possible anywhere – yes, we’ve had some here, though luckily they’ve been benign in content and no one was injured – and the Lac Mégantic report has left us wondering why the powers that be have left so much oversight to the companies themselves.

The federal transportation minister told media last week that, in terms of railway safety, "the government puts the rules in place. The companies are expected to follow the rules."

That’d be a great way to manage things for industries in which no human life or the environment is at potential risk or where profit over safety could never be a pressure. But transportation? Railways?

Direct, enforced oversight is critical, even if it costs us money to do it right.

One thing we know for certain is that no investigation and no report – no matter how thorough, how damning, how full of recommendations for the future – can undo a disaster once it has occurred.