A catastrophe like the derailment of a crude tanker that killed 47 last year could be repeated unless measures to boost rail safety are put in place, say Canadian regulators.
On 6 July, 2013, an engineer parked his train of oil tankers on a main line uphill from the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, overnight, but when the brakes failed the train rolled downhill and derailed, exploding in balls of fire and flattening the centre of the town.
The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said the Canadian government did not adequately audit the railroad company at the centre of the incident as it issued its final report on what was one of North America's deadliest rail accidents in recent memory.
The TSB said Transport Canada, the federal transportation ministry, had failed to stamp out abuses at Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd (MMA), the now insolvent company that operated the train.
TSB Chair Wendy Tadros said MMA had a weak safety culture, trained its employees poorly, skimped on maintenance and did not have a functioning safety management system.
"Transport Canada knew about some of the problems at MMA, but the follow-up wasn't always there. Instead, the focus was on making sure railway companies had a safety management system, not how they were using it," she told a news conference.
"Transport Canada didn't audit railways often enough and thoroughly enough to know how those companies were really managing – or not managing – risks.”
Train shipments of crude oil have skyrocketed in Canada and the USA in recent years in the absence of sufficient pipeline capacity to transport oil and the TSB called for more thorough audits of safety management systems and said more physical defences, such as wheel chocks or modern braking technology, are needed to prevent runaway trains.
Asked whether a similar disaster could happen again, TSB Chief Operating Officer Jean Laporte replied: "Unfortunately, right now, there are risks that that could happen."
An official watchdog said last November that Canadian officials were not doing enough to ensure rail safety.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, pressed as to why her ministry had not shut down MMA before the disaster, said that was a matter for her bureaucrats to deal with and deflected repeated questions about government accountability and her own responsibility.
Raitt, who did not receive the TSB report ahead of time, said she and her ministry would study it closely.
Canada has adopted several earlier TSB recommendations on improving the safety of transporting crude oil by rail, which the TSB’s Tadros said had occurred largely unchecked.
Greenpeace said the TSB report was "a searing indictment of Transport Canada's failure to protect the public from a company that they knew was cutting corners on safety despite the fact it was carrying increasing amounts of hazardous cargo."
In April, the Canadian government ordered that older versions of the DOT-111 rail cars, like those used by the train in the Lac-Mégantic disaster, be phased out by May 2017.
The US Department of Transportation last month proposed new safety rules for hauling crude oil by rail, including taking the older DOT-111s out of circulation within a maximum of five years.
TSB Chair Tadros said increased physical defences are needed to stop runaway trains because not all operators will follow safety rules.
"Railways are high risk industries. We may not have thought of them like that before, but certainly (Lac-Mégantic) has taught us that," she told Reuters.