disputes union's concerns over track safety
Source: Edmonton Journal
Published: October 7th 2008
Only a matter of time before damage leads to train derailment, union official
Canadian Pacific Railway is brushing aside concerns about track safety problems they fear could lead to train derailments, injuries and deaths, union officials warn.
Concerns they have raised about joint bars being damaged by passing trains have fallen on deaf ears, they say, and failure to address the problem may have tragic results.
One union official in Alberta called it a disaster waiting to happen.
"To me, this is a piece of dynamite and the fuse is halfway burned off," said Henry Helfenbein, Teamsters Rail Conference Pacific region director.
"We truly feel that there is a concern for safety in general, and I personally feel that it is not a matter of if something will happen, but when."
Joint bars connect two separate pieces of rail and are not supposed to come into contact with the wheels of passing trains, but union officials say excessive wear of tracks and wheels has caused the wheels to impact the bars.
They're calling for increased track maintenance -- a call heard repeatedly by the Transport Canada Rail Safety Act Review Advisory Panel last year.
CP spokeswoman Breanne Feigel said the company takes the issue seriously.
"Safety is a top priority for CP, so any cracked joint bar, no matter how it is found ... is protected and replaced," she said. "We're aware of the issues that were raised and certainly our company addressed them and investigated them."
She said CP conducts regular track maintenance inspections "a couple of times a week" and those are supplemented by regular manual inspections by track supervisors across the entire system four times annually. CP also inspects the tracks once a year with computer technology that uses ultrasound waves to search for defects, she said.
"Our regulators have never outlined the need for the joint bar system to be immediately replaced with something like welded rail because of the issues identified by these union members," Feigel said.
Transport Canada has advised the union that it is looking into its concerns and has requested CP to provide more information about how it's dealing with the joint bar issue.
"Transport Canada rail safety investigators will remain vigilant in their inspections on CP and will pay attention for flange worn bars and when they encounter them, they will take appropriate action," rail safety director general Luc Bourdon advised the union in a recent letter.
Canadian Transportation Safety Board investigator George Fowler said he has seen derailments caused by joint bars, but it's not a common occurrence.
"It's not a systemic issue, but in certain territories you will see this condition," said Fowler, the safety board's track and infrastructure specialist. "It's a question of the railroad not changing over the rails as soon as they should."
CP has had nearly 2,900 derailments over the past decade and averaged 350 a year over the last four years, up from an average of 260 a decade ago.
CP responded to a union letter that raised concerns about damaged joint bars by saying "the specific conditions highlighted are not track safety defects."
Helfenbein said he found eight defects on a track in the Medicine Hat area in an hour, and the day after he reported them CP crews went out to replace them.
"Why would they wait so long to fix them until someone brought it to their attention and if it's not serious, why would they change them overnight?" he asked.
Helfenbein says he subsequently received a CP directive ordering him to stay off the tracks.
Bill Brehl, Teamsters Rail Conference president, says there are thousands of joint bars on the CP line and "we don't know how many are out there waiting to fail."
"This is an issue of them putting profits before safety; of them trusting good luck and gravity to keep the trains on the rails," said Brehl, who represents 3,500 rail maintenance workers. "This is a problem that's systematic that could be leading to the increasing number of derailments. It's getting worse and worse every day and they are putting it off year after year. I think it has got to get fixed and it has got to get fixed now."
Feigel said CP has the lowest accident rate in Canada at 2.1 accidents per million miles compared to an industry average of 3.4 accidents. She said the company is spending $800 million to upgrade rail infrastructure and has a plan to replace 20,930 kilometres of track.
"We rely heavily on our employees in ensuring that we remain the safest railway in North America," she said.
A spokesman at CN said joint bars have not been an issue on its track.
A union employee, who requested anonymity, said he wasn't aware of joint bars being an issue, but "if it's a problem at CP, it's a problem at CN."
Todd Cotie, a United Steelworkers Union health and safety employee representative at CN, said the railway is eliminating the need for joint bars by welding the rails together.
"They temporarily fix the rail with these bars, then they take the bars out and weld the rails in the spring, but they can't keep up," he said.
The Canadian Wheat Board told the railway safety act review panel last year that it lost $2.4-million worth of grain in the two previous years due to derailments.
"Reports on the incidents and their causes would suggest that the railways are not doing all they can to prevent, or at least reduce the severity of these occurrences," it said. "Maintenance and train service employees on both railways have indicated their concerns with the deteriorating safety of the rail lines caused by longer and heavier trains, fewer staff doing maintenance and inspection, and longer service hours for remaining staff."