I call to order meeting number 9 of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
Welcome to all our witnesses, those who are present in the room as well as those by video conference. We'll try to get some questions for all of you.
Right now on this panel we have a representative of the BNSF Railway Company, Orest Dachniwsk, associate general counsel, operations and regulatory; and as an individual, Mary-Jane Bennett, lawyer.
By video conference from the city of Surrey, we have Len Garis, fire chief, and Dan Branscher, deputy fire chief, both from the Surrey Fire Service.
The representatives by video conference of BNSF Railway Company are Glen Gaz, Johan Hellman, Jared Wootton, and Courtney Wallace.
As you all know, we are doing a brief study on railway safety, and we're getting down to our last witnesses this week. If you wouldn't mind, could you confine yourselves to 5 minutes of opening remarks, rather than 10 minutes, if possible. Make sure that you get the most important points across to give the committee members sufficient time for their questions.
We also have Jamie Bullman, manager of transportation for the city of Surrey. It's good that we have lots of representatives from Surrey.
We will start the meeting with whoever would like to go first, Mr. Dachniwsky or Ms. Bennett.
Thank you, Madam Chair, and members of the committee, for the opportunity to present on this very important issue of railway safety in the Surrey area of British Columbia. For those unaware of the geography of that area, Surrey and White Rock are sister cities leading into Port Metro Vancouver, with a couple of communities in-between. Those cities are located along the oceanside. It's a beautiful area of British Columbia. Some have likened it to the Amalfi coast in Italy.
In any event, the rail line hugs the shore of those areas. And it's not a case of the community coming after a railway; rather, the community was there, and then the railway line installed itself when there was enhanced access to Vancouver through the New Westminster bridge. The initial transportation of goods was benign and low volume, but since the creation of the super-port, and now with the Fraser Surrey Docks, there have been great increases in the traffic and in the commodity types. In fact, the trains are also longer. Whereas in the mid-nineties trains were 1.5 kilometres, now they're four kilometres, with increases ahead, and carrying 18,000 tonnes of goods.
There's concern in that area about landslides, bank stability, and deteriorating load-bearing infrastructure. I can describe the City of Surrey as taking a responsible and balanced approach to the matter. They have initiated a number of corporate reports from the mayor and council indicating that a railway is needed, that port activity enhances economic activity, but also warning of several safety issues.
I wanted to touch on three of them today. The first one is the UDEs, or undesired emergency brakings, that have occurred in the Crescent Beach area of that line. There were four occasions in the course of six months, and there has been little information as to the cause of the UDEs. One UDE caused a four-hour delay, another a 90-minute delay, another a 45-minute delay, and one a three-hour delay.
The concern of the city is twofold. First of all, UDEs are often described as.... When a track condition or a rail condition is unsafe, when there is undesired emergency braking, it can easily cause a derailment. Numerous reports attest to this. The second part of the problem with the UDEs is that they have the potential to cut off access to the community.
First, on the safety issue, I wanted to go into greater detail on that, but I'm feeling confined by the time. There are a number of Transportation Safety Board reports and AAR reports, and then there's the fallout from Lac-Mégantic and the position taken by the U.S. department in terms of regulating electronic brakes.
The second issue relating to this is the lack of emergency exit. The fact is that the Crescent Beach area is cut off, and the community is blocked oftentimes by the train. If there is an emergency situation, there is no other way of accessing the community, and in fact, if there is a derailment or something of that nature, there would be an inability for first responders to access the area.
The reports by the City of Surrey note that the city would like a change in the grade-crossing rules, which say that if there's alternate access within three kilometres, then access is not deemed a safety concern.
Regarding the position on advancing, I would point out that an order was recently issued to the City of Brampton under section 31 of the Railway Safety Act, just because of the delay in crossings there. The City of Surrey should be dealt with in like manner.
The last matter I want to raise is the lack of sufficient insurance. Since 9/11, insurance has contracted. BNSF has taken the lead in North America in warning that the railways are operating without sufficient insurance. I can provide greater detail on that. This is a concern to Surrey.
In the final analysis, what we're requesting is an inspection of the track to ensure that there's no safety or security of operation under the Railway Safety Act; the support of the committee for the relocation of the line under the Railway Relocation and Crossing Act; and a requirement that the cause of the UDEs be investigated. We note that at BNSF, under their air brake and train handling rules, they are required to report this to their desk as a mechanical failure, so there should be information as to the cause of that.
Thank you, Madam Chair, and members of the committee.
For the record, my name is Orest Dachniwsky, and I am assistant vice-president and associate general counsel for BNSF Railway Company, in office at our corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. My job duties include providing support and counsel to our operating department on issues related to regulatory compliance and safety initiatives.
I'm joined today by our technical experts who are present via video conference. I apologize for my colleagues not being here in person, but aircraft maintenance issues this morning prevented them from being able to arrive on time. We hope this inconvenience does not detract from the value we might provide to this committee. Following this meeting, I will be available to address any follow-up questions or issues that we may not be able to address in the time provided during the formal portion of this meeting.
Let me say at the beginning that we consider it a genuine honour and a privilege to appear for the first time before the parliamentary Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities. We are grateful for this opportunity, and we look forward to assisting you in your study of railway safety in Canada. Furthermore, we hope this opportunity is the first of many going forward, as we mutually seek opportunities to expand our common interest in expanding safety opportunity and stewardship, not only in the communities and provinces we serve as BNSF, but all across Canada.
BNSF traces its heritage back more than 150 years, to its founder, a visionary Canadian railroader named James J. Hill. Our railroad was the second to serve Vancouver, British Columbia, commencing service in 1891. Also, a segment of line identified in paragraph B of the study in which you are engaged has continuously operated along the beach at White Rock and Semiahmoo Peninsula since 1909.
Although BNSF only operates about 37 kilometres of track in British Columbia, this segment serves as a significant strategic link in a trade route between Canada and the United States. In fact, BNSF's line in this area is the only direct rail route between British Columbia and the United States, and is therefore a vital link in the supply chain between customers and industries in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
As competition between ports along the west coast of North America has increased dramatically in recent years, BNSF's service to Canada's Pacific gateway provides Vancouver with the unique strategic advantage of being the only port on the west coast served by three class 1 railroads.
This segment also serves an important role in passenger rail. This is a track that serves Amtrak passenger service between Seattle and Vancouver. It also serves the iconic success story in Canadian rail service known as the Rocky Mountaineer. In fact, passenger service has played a critical role historically in settling this part of the country and in establishing safe, reliable access to communities such as White Rock. It also serves an important role in the future of the region.
Speaking to the issue of rail safety generally, let me be clear that safety is the primary mission of our railroad and the cornerstone of every decision we make and every action that we engage in. Our culture of safety includes but is not limited to free railroad haz-mat response training to more than 76,000 first responders since 1996. In the last three years alone, we have trained 279 first responders in British Columbia.
Track and bridge inspections occur with greater frequency than is required by Transport Canada, with the busiest main lines inspected daily, all other sections of track inspected at least four times per week, and bridges inspected at least one time per year. In fact, the bridges in British Columbia were all inspected during the first quarter of 2016. It is important to note that as part of these inspections, we inspect for any potential signs of erosion, especially following severe weather events such as storms.
We apply rail detectors, which use ultrasonic rays, to detect internal and external flaws to rail. A track geometry car inspects every piece of BNSF track at least one time per year by measuring the track surface underload for gauge, level, alignment, and vertical separation. It then creates a computerized report of any detected flaws which is transmitted directly to field personnel, who generally address the issue within 24 hours.
We use trackside sensors, located at least every 40 miles along our line, which measure wheel heat signatures invisible to the human eye or auditory signals imperceptible to the human ear that could indicate that a wheel on a railcar is wearing inconsistently. In this way, the sensors allow railroad crews with an opportunity to move a train out at the next available siding and address potential problems before they occur.
We also participate in programs such as AskRail. In AskRail, we have more than 200 first responders currently registered in British Columbia.
The Chair: You have one minute left.
Mr. Orest Dachniwsky: Yes, ma'am.
As a result of our culture of safety, 99.998% of our trains carrying dangerous goods arrive at their destination without incident.
We are also happy to report that we have extremely safe conditions at each of the communities we serve. In the City of White Rock, BNSF has invested heavily in our physical plant. We’ve increased safety by replacing bolted rail with continuous welded rail and by replacing the bridges over the Little Campbell and Serpentine waterways. We have worked with the city to improve public safety by committing more of our resources to policing and are continuing to work with the city on fencing enhancement which would reduce the risk of injuries to citizens crossing areas that are not designated as authorized rail crossings.
Regarding the Semiahmoo, we work with them on a regular basis in order to improve conditions with safety.
Yes, we certainly would. Thank you very much.
Just to reintroduce myself, I'm Len Garis, the fire chief, but I am also appointed as the city's emergency planner under the Emergency Program Act of the Province of British Columbia,. So there are two pieces of contacts here that are fairly important to us.
When I describe Crescent Beach, a seaside community in Surrey, it's important to know that it's about 142 acres, with about 403 properties, and home to about 1,250 people full-time. That number swells during the summer; as I said, it's a seaside resort community.
I would like to point out that Crescent Beach has two access roads from the the beach, which are intersected by the rail line at grade. The primary route runs along Beecher Street and Crescent Road. As noted, there is a map in my presentation. The secondary route is McBride Avenue.
Due to their proximity, being approximately 500 metres apart, both access points have a tendency to be blocked by passing trains. Again, the map will point that out to you. It shows two proposed emergency exit access points, from our conversations with the BNSF and the city.
The geography of Crescent Beach takes the rail tracks along the coastline of Boundary Bay and Mud Bay at about 4.5 kilometres of the portion of tracks.
For some time, Crescent Beach residents have petitioned that the rail line be moved away from the coastline, citing concerns about dangerous goods being transported too close to the community, along with the inconvenience of having eight to 10 blockages a day, which last between six and 10 minutes.
In December 2007, a mechanical failure forced BNSF to apply its emergency brake at Crescent Beach, resulting in all road access blockage of about two hours.
After this incident, the Crescent Beach Property Owners Association approached the mayor and council and requested immediate action to prevent the community from being isolated or stalled by this train. To help this access concern, Surrey Fire Services, RCMP, and ambulance services worked with BNSF to create a document called the stopped train protocol , and my understanding is that you will be receiving this shortly.
Through this protocol, when a public request for emergency services is received, the emergency provider notifies the respective rail company to either stop or delay the train. The stopped train protocol also provides a process to follow a train breakdown block at critical at-grade crossings, such as those into the community of Crescent Beach.
In October 2010, the city contracted an independent engineering consultant to investigate the matter of emergency access routes to the community of Crescent Beach, should these two access points be blocked again by the train. The study investigated a number of options, but as it turned out at the end of the day, they believe that it was proved to be too complex and costly.
In November 2012, a short time after the stopped train protocol was implemented, another BNSF train breakdown occurred, blocking access to Crescent Beach. During this incident, the stopped train protocol was not adhered to, nor were the Transport Canada regulations requiring any stopped train to be blocked longer than five minutes, to provide unimpeded access to vehicular traffic. This incident resulted in a comprehensive isolation of the community for 30 minutes. Investigation by a BNSF trainmaster later revealed that there had been a communications breakdown.
As a result of the second incident, the mayor and council, the Surrey emergency program, and the RCMP essentially felt a loss of credibility with the residents about their ability to deal with this critical safety issue. We we had put protocols in place to try to alleviate this.
Over the following years, both access roads in and out of Crescent Beach were blocked by a BNSF train on a number of occasions. On June 26, 2014, there was a failure and a blockage for 45 minutes. On August 2, 2014, at 09:35, a mechanical failure resulted in a BNSF train blocking Beecher access for more than 10 minutes, and McBride access for three hours. On January 5, 2015, a mudslide at mile post 125.7, one mile south of McBride Avenue resulted in a BNSF train blocking both access points for three hours and four minutes. On February 18, 2016, a fallen tree across tracks south of McBride resulted in a BNSF train blocking the points again for an hour and 39 minutes.
Following the January 5 incident, a complaint letter was sent to Transport Canada, which responded by saying there was not enough evidence to support the complaint or to proceed with it.
To help mitigate that, the City of Surrey installed CCTV cameras, as well as an electronic monitoring system, first at the Crescent and Beecher Street crossing, and then at the McBride Road crossing. The intent was to collect visual, time-stamped evidence in order to provide Transport Canada with documentation and proof, and to pre-empt any emergencies that were occurring in the community that we knew in real time.
The CCTV cameras monitor and record all rail traffic in contravention of the rail operations rules, specifically rule 103(d), which reads:
no part of a movement may be allowed to stand on any part of a public crossing at grade, for a longer period than 5 minutes, when vehicular or pedestrian traffic requires passage.
Following the installation of the CCTV camera, the incident on February 18 was recorded and is currently under investigation.
It is important to note that from April 1, 2011 to March 31, 2016, there have been 228 calls for emergency service in this community, and in the past few years we have seen several incidents where a stopped train protocol should have been exercised but was not.
Further, on these occasions it appears that BNSF was in violation of Transport Canada's rail operating rules. However, the city has had no indication from Transport Canada that any sanctions or consequences have been applied in order to alleviate this problem and try to encourage them to follow the rules that are in place.
It is the City of Surrey's view that BNSF and Transport Canada have failed to recognize the seriousness of the Crescent Beach community's becoming completely isolated whenever a BNSF train blocks these two access roads.
This creates an elevated life risk, should there be a request for emergency services in the community of Crescent Beach.
That is my statement. Thank you.
Without getting too deeply into any specific event, I would start by just saying that we take these issues very seriously. As Orest said, these are relatively uncommon, and they generally occur largely as a result of an unforeseeable event, such as a downed tree across the tracks or a mechanical failure. But we recognize and appreciate the concerns of area residents.
In fact, last year BNSF met with the City of Surrey, and we offered three potential solutions to ensure continuity of emergency service in the event of a blocked crossing. Those ranged from a solution like a grade separation, which is probably the most complicated and also the most expensive.... You could potentially put in a rail underpass at that particular site. You could potentially station emergency services on either side of the track, or you could do some sort of slope stabilization, which we do proactively as well.
When we talk about issues like these, we really have to look at what the problem is that we're trying to solve and then try to fit the solution to that. For example, when people see an area like this, they think a grade separation is the obvious thing that needs to be done. That may not necessarily be the case. An average grade separation can cost $35 million or more. Maybe what you do is to put in a pedestrian overpass across that point, where you can get an emergency vehicle across in an emergency situation.
We can talk a little bit more specifically about some of the protocols, but on this general issue situations like this, this is a specific point. There's been ongoing conversation about it. I think we need to find some way we can work as private industry, as local governments, and also as a federal government to try to resolve some of these issues and move forward on that.
Yes, I would, Madam Chair. Thank you.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, members of the committee.
My name is Marc Beaulieu. I'm the chief transportation and safety officer for VIA Rail Canada.
I'm delighted to appear before you today, joined by my colleague, director of government and community relations, Jacques Fauteux.
Our president and CEO Mr. Yves Desjardins-Siciliano asked me to send his greetings and regrets that he is not able to meet you today to speak about VIA Rail's perspective on rail safety.
At VIA Rail our mandate is to provide safe, efficient, reliable, and environmentally sustainable transportation services that meet the needs of Canadian travellers from coast to coast. Above, safety and security are VIA Rail's top priorities, and we are always striving to improve in this area. All 2,500 employees of VIA Rail understand that safety is a group effort and that it is everyone's responsibility.
That objective is at the heart of everything we do, whether in our maintenance centres, at our stations, or on board our trains.
Our two key priorities in this area are ensuring the safety of our operations and informing the Canadian public about safety around railroads.
With regard to our operations, we're constantly making improvements to our safety management system. VIA Rail's safety management system provides the framework to implement safety policy and to comply with the Railway Safety Act and safety management system regulations. It is also the reference for setting goals and planning and measuring safety performance to implement SMS and continuously improve its performance. We foster a very strong safety culture.
In 2015, VIA Rail addressed the recommendations from Transport Canada's 2014 SMS audit. We've complied with revised and new SMS regulations and maintained and fostered strong participation by all employees, all ahead of the required timeline. In addition, we consulted with external experts to benchmark our SMS leading practices within and outside the industry in keeping with our commitment to go above and beyond mere compliance.
As I am sure you can appreciate, the current work demands on locomotive engineers are very high, with a significant cognitive effort, memory load, and concentration requirements. Most current locomotive engineers of ours have many years of experience and broad knowledge both in freight and passenger trains. In our succession plan, we have to further ensure the safety of our operations.
VIA Rail has designed an innovative approach to reduce both the mental workload and the risk for human error in train operations. We've developed an in-house GPS train tracking safety system, the first of its kind in Canada. The GPS tracking system assists locomotive engineers by providing notifications of upcoming speed changes or restrictions and approaching changes in applicable rules or landmarks along the route. As you know, VIA Rail operates primarily on shared tracks owned by freight operators.
Via Rail owns just 3% of the tracks used by our trains, so nearly 300 kilometres between Quebec and Ontario.
The fact that we operate mainly in a shared environment where our trains travel on freight rail lines is why we developed a safety system that could be effective on both our own infrastructure and the infrastructure of other partners.
VIA Rail has successfully completed the first live road test of a GPS-trained safety system in order to validate critical foundational system capabilities, accuracy, precision of real-time GPS feed, and track database in a real environment. This was a significant achievement, and further development and testing of the system is ongoing.
I am also very proud of the fact that in 2015, VIA Rail earned the Railway Association of Canada's safety award for our enterprise risk management system, which is designed to proactively address potential safety risks. The ERM system was honoured for its success in identifying and assessing key risks that aided the development and adoption of proactive measures to prevent potential incidents and to implement corrective measures.
As I mentioned earlier, VIA Rail puts tremendous efforts into educating Canadians about safety around rail property and trains. For many years, VIA Rail has worked with Operation Lifesaver in partnership with the Railway Association of Canada.
As a member of the board of directors—
First of all, GO Transit is part of Metrolinx. It's a crown agency of the province. Metrolinx would include UP Express, our new airport rail link; GO Transit; and Presto. I will speak on behalf of those also.
Safety is very important not just to the industry, but also certainly to major players like VIA Rail Canada and GO Transit and UP Express. We have this commitment to safety. It's part of the GO and UP culture. That's to the benefit of our customers, employees, contractors, and also for the communities through which we operate. We actually own 80% of our operating network, so that's a responsibility we take very seriously. We have been fortunate to have a great safety record since our inception of 1967, and we look forward to continuing that.
We embed the commitment to safety in our passenger charter, which was precedent-setting when introduced some six years ago. We have an explicit set of promises in terms of the safety we provide to our customers, and we look forward to continuing that process. It's one of those things where you just can't take your eye off the ball. You have to keep reinvesting time and energy to make sure safety matters.
Lastly, we have a safety management system also, as required by Transport Canada. That gets updated every year, and we make sure we live up to those commitments also.
On our community contribution, we do education outreach. We reach into the schools. That's really important. It's important to get to the kids before they get to the tracks. We take that very seriously. We did something in the last year that was quite unique—I believe a precedent to the industry. We partnered with ConnexOntario, another agency of the province, and put up signs at all of our level crossings, stations, and bridges, basically for a health line for those who are desperate with mental health issues. We have had some feedback that it has saved lives as well. We're quite proud of that, and we're hoping that it rolls out to the industry. We already have some interest through CUTA and CN, but we'd like to roll that out right across Canada.
Many of the things we do centre on safety and customer service, but safety is always first, whether in terms of how we build our crew shifts or how we build our equipment. We have been one of the first to embrace the in-cab, video-audio recorders. We have started changing our fleet over, and as soon as they're changed over, we turn them on. We expect to have our fleet turned on by the end of this year. We think this is a very important step forward for us, and we hope that the industry does it also.
As for some of the other areas, we look internationally to see the appropriate best practices of other agencies, not just in North America but outside North America, to see what the right things are, any of which we can reverse-engineer into our operation.
With respect to dangerous goods, for example, we have made some recommendations through the Canada Transportation Act panel. I won't go over those. Many of you may already have read some of them. As an entity that owns 80% of its network, we have an obligation, and it's a fairly unique one, to host such trains carrying dangerous goods. So we've had some early conversation with Transport Canada on what those obligations are.
In terms of other things we do, because we own our operating network, or 80% of it, we wound up contracting to Transport Canada to regulate us on our own network. They felt it was outside their jurisdiction, so we actually chose...and we just renewed for two more years with Transport Canada, inviting them to come onto our corridor, inspect our operating crews, inspect our equipment and the actual right of way. We think this is a good step forward. We don't think self-regulation is the level of safety that we want. We think strong safety is good public policy, and we and our behaviour support that.
For our own corridors we don't wait until we're told what the minimum safety level is in terms of lights, bells and gates. We actually go to maximum protection at all our level crossings.
We are very quick to react should there be any state of disrepair. We think this is very important.
The industry responds to slow orders. Should there be any track specific issues, it's important to react quickly to those also. Of course, the industry tries to do that.
I want to thank both of you gentlemen. I particularly want to thank VIA Rail, because you got me home safely during 9/11 from Fredericton to Alberta. I wish I'd had a camcorder at the time to record all the people who had only one way to get back to the west from the east coast during that time, and that was by rail. It was quite an experience.
I just want to add, to VIA Rail, a plea from my colleagues in northern Ontario who are deeply sad to see their rail service disappearing, because in many cases it's the only link to the south for some of those communities.
I actually took the time to pull up VIA Rail's 2014-18 corporate plan. It's very interesting. I noticed that you talked a lot about rail track segments abandoned by owners. I'm presuming in many cases that was by the main lines, CN or CP. I'm troubled by what you said, that as the lines deteriorate and the main lines are not willing to upgrade those lines, then ultimately VIA Rail has to suspend service.
Could you speak to that and what kind of action you think the federal government should be taking to put some pressure on the main line companies? Secondly, what kind of process is followed to come to the final decision that you're going to cease service because of rail safety?
I'm thrilled to see that so many members want to go on the trip. I think it would be worthwhile to wait given that so few committee members will be able to take part as it stands now. It would be a shame if regular committee members had to be replaced by individuals who could not help with the writing of the report afterwards.
I would remind everyone that, even though the meetings are supposed to be informal, the goal is for parliamentarians to better understand a tragedy that occurred two years ago and the ensuing reality. I hope we can schedule the trip at a time when the greatest number of committee members are able to take part.
With that in mind, it may be a better idea to postpone the trip. Seeing as the meetings are informal, anyway, we wouldn't necessarily gather a lot of input for the report. Nevertheless, I would like the committee members to keep those comments in mind when it comes time to write the report.
It has been suggested that we hear from the two deputy ministers, which could give us enough time to reschedule the trip and to get ourselves better organized. Truth be told, I had just two days to rally all the participants, so it was a bit tight. But, if I were to have a bit longer, the trip would be all the better for it.
Knowing that we'll have Bill coming to us very quickly, and in order to continue to be as efficient as we have been with our time so far, can I suggest that committee members submit their witness lists by this coming Friday?
I'm sorry, Mr. Fraser. I will get to you.
Second, I suggest that we direct the clerk to invite the minister and departmental officials to come before committee at the first meeting on Bill . This way, if it comes on Thursday, we'll still have a motion that we can get all of this started as soon we come back on May 2. Is everybody in agreement?
We'll give direction to the clerk to notify the minister that we'd like to see him at our first opportunity when we're dealing with Bill and that the committee members will submit by this coming Friday a list of any witnesses that they would like to have come before committee.
Ms. Linda Duncan: Is that on the budget?
The Chair: No. This is on Bill .
The third point would be that if we have a lot of witnesses, should we look at having late meetings—if necessary—in order to be able to accommodate Bill ?
An hon. member: Why not?
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
The Chair: I'm asking the committee.
Mr. Fraser, I didn't get back to you yet. I'm sorry.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
May I suggest with Bill that you sit down with the chair of the agriculture committee and come back with a report to the committee with next steps?
Second, with respect to the Emerson report, I'm just dying to get into that report. I think we all are, after reading it. It's quite an exciting time for the country with a lot of the recommendations and/or discussion and dialogue that will happen with respect to next steps. I don't think it's all that realistic to think that we'll get into that before we rise in June. I think the fall time frame will be more realistic, and I think it allows us that. Nevertheless, I think it will take a lot of our time, as it very well should. It very well should because it's very important to get through it. I personally would like to see a national transportation strategy come out of that, and I think for the most part the minister is very aware of that.
To repeat myself, Madam Chair, I would suggest, if I may, that Bill be dealt with by your meeting with the chair of the agriculture committee and coming back with a report to the committee. Second, we can look at the Emerson report following all this, more than likely in the fall, and we can proceed then.