photo by Frederic DekkalTrains are as much a part of the fabric of Canada as the maple leaf. The railways are the steel ribbon that has connected Canada economically and socially from the post-Confederation days to the present. The majority of Canadians have been on a passenger train at some point in their life. We like trains and we respect the businesses and workers who manage this industry. But there are problems.
It is quite evident that there are serious management and communications problems at VIA Rail. When one of Canada’s most senior cabinet ministers calls for the VIA President to walk you know there is a problem. Foreign Affairs Minister and Ottawa West-Nepean MP John Baird was so concerned enough about VIA’s mishandling of safety issues on rail crossings in his Ottawa riding that he publicly called for a change at the top. The bottom line is that VIA must have really screwed up how it handled the safety concerns expressed by Ottawa residents, including Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. Here’s the lesson in this for VIA. Don’t be so cavalier with the concerns of local residents or you might find yourself going toe-to-toe with their representative who happens to punch way above your weight. You’d think they would get that in a post-Lac-Mégantic disaster world, any concerns regarding rail safety raised by a community should be taken very seriously. Each day thousands of railcars travel through communities across Canada carrying combustible fuel and other dangerous materials. Most municipalities have no idea what cargo is in the freight car rolling through their communities. The Lac-Mégantic disaster last year that killed 47 people and destroyed a small town brought this issue to national attention.
In Ottawa the collision of a VIA Rail train and OC Transpo bus last fall resulting in 5 deaths and several serious injuries resonated with citizens. The silver lining in that story was the excellent response of rail workers, city emergency services workers and other civic leaders in the aftermath of the tragedy. It’s the same for the freight rail issue. Teamsters Canada, The Canadian Federation of Municipalities and the Railway Association of Canada have all expressed a resolve to do what is required to ensure the safety of all citizens impacted by the movement of dangerous freight across Canada. Over the next year Ottawa Life Magazine is going to follow this issue and cover it in some detail. Freight trains roll through our community every day, through neighbourhoods just like Lac-Mégantic. Passenger trains also roll through rail crossings impacting local traffic. We will keep you abreast of legislated changes to the rail system regarding safety in the transport of goods (and passengers) that will ensure Ottawa and other Canadians cities and towns are fully protected from the type of disaster that befell the small community of Lac- Mégantic. As we near the first anniversary of that tragedy we hope our series will contribute to something positive coming out of that sad occurrence.