VANCOUVER — A steep increase in rail accidents over the last decade is pushing the federal government to bring in tough new penalties for railway companies caught breaking safety rules.
Rob Merrifield, the minister of state for transport, announced Tuesday the new legislation will include protections for whistleblowers and greater financial and legal penalties for violations.
The changes would designate one railway executive legally responsible for safety, and the minister suggested the person could possibly face jail time if rules were broken.
"Let's hope not," Merrifield said, when asked if rail executives might go to jail if safety rules were violated.
"What we're really wanting to do is to make sure that they have a culture of safety within the company and if you are saying there's one person deemed to have that responsibility there's a lot more chance that's actually going to happen."
Merrifield wouldn't release more details until the bill is tabled in the next few days.
He said that until now, there have been few penalties and no repercussions for railways that violate safety laws.
"All of these will be addressed in the bill," he said. "I believe even the rail companies will support it, reluctantly perhaps, but I believe they will."
The changes are the result of two separate reviews on railway safety, completed in 2008.
The first advisory panel report made 56 recommendations to improve safety, while a Commons committee report made another 14 recommendations.
The studies were launched after deadly rail accidents in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
The Commons committee report concluded there was a lack of accountability around safety from both Transport Canada and the country's railways, which hadn't done enough to create a culture of safety.
"We believe the lack of action has come about for two reasons," the report stated. "That it was not a high enough priority for the railroads and the government and that there has been a critical failure to communicate among the stakeholders on how safety issues must be addressed."
The report also said the main concern was the implementation of Safety Management Systems or SMS at railways, which gave much of the responsibility around safety to the railway companies themselves instead of to the federal government.
The committee said it agreed with the concept of the system, but that it shouldn't replace the existing railway safety rules.
Last year, CN Rail was fined nearly $2 million after pleading guilty under provincial environmental laws and the Federal Fisheries Act in connection to two derailments.
In August 2005, a CN train derailed alongside Lake Wabamun, east of Edmonton, dumping almost 200,000 litres of oil into the reservoir.
Days later, several rail cars loaded with sodium hydroxide spilled into the Cheakamus River near Squamish, B.C., killing half a million fish.
Just last month, Alberta health officials issued a warning to residents and tourists using Lake Wabamun to watch for balls of tar and oil deposits.
CN was fined $400,000 for the river spill and $1.4 million for the Wabamun incident.
The company also paid millions of dollars in compensation and clean-up costs after the two spills.
Last year, the Transportation Safety Board heavily criticized CN Rail's safety system in a report on an accident where two rail workers rode an out-of-control train to their deaths near Lillooet, B.C.
The report concluded the train didn't have the proper brakes to slow it down on B.C.'s mountainous terrain.
The Transportation Safety Board singled out the failure of CN's safety management system after the crash.
The TSB also said a lack of safety guidelines contributed to a January 2007 CN Rail derailment in Montmagny, Que., where four cars containing sulphuric acid left the tracks.
No one was hurt and the acid was contained.
CN spokesman Mark Hallman said the company is committed to running a safe railway and has improved its safety record in recent years.
In 2009, CN had 41 main track accidents in Canada, a 37-per-cent reduction from a year earlier, he said in a statement.
So far this year, CN has recorded 13 TSB-reportable main track accidents, 46 per cent less from the comparable period last year, Hallman said.
"CN policy is to abide by all applicable safety laws and to continually improve its safety performance."
CP Rail improved its plan for sharing critical safety information between rail traffic control officers after a January 2004 accident near Whitby, Ont.
A train derailed on an overpass, sending rail car platforms onto the roadway below and killing two people in a vehicle travelling on the road.
An investigation by The Canadian Press last year found numerous rail accidents were blamed on faulty rail-safety systems.