Now’s not the time for a train inquiry

Russell Wangersky
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There is a time and place for everything, even for parliamentary committees. And sometimes, the time really is not yet.

Early last week, the House of Commons Transport Committee held an emergency meeting to decide whether the committee should review rail safety across the country, a move triggered by the deadly Lac-Megantic rail crash. The NDP’s Olivia Chow argued the review should come immediately, looking into past derailments and then switching over to Lac-Megantic when more information becomes available.

The Liberals and Tories argued for a review, but not until the fall at the earliest.

Chow then suggested that both the Liberals and the Tories simply didn’t want to work during the summer.

They may not, but the fact is that this is not the time to start a parliamentary review — and while there may be no rails left in this province, the reasons why the committee shouldn’t start now can apply to the efforts of any number of parliamentary committees.

The fact is, without the tragic and huge crash, Chow would not be arguing for a committee meeting now either.

With regards to Lac-Megantic, the investigation is certainly a work in progress.

Among other revelations this week alone, there was the news that the railway involved, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MM&A) railway, regularly left unmanned trainloads of cars on its main line during crew changes, because a nearby siding was being used to store empty rail cars for a manufacturer.

If the unmanned railcars had been on that siding when they started to move, they would have been derailed at slow speed by an automatic derailler before they ever reached the main line.

That’s just one of the new pieces of information to surface about MM&A’s staffing and operating practices.

There certainly is plenty to talk about in the rail business, and not all about Lac-Megantic.

After all, this week also saw Canadian Pacific talking about record-breaking profits — the railway saw profits double in the second quarter of this year, a profit that includes huge savings due to company-wide layoffs.

That’s interesting fodder to throw into an overall review of rail safety in this country, especially when you consider that MM&A was one of the first rail companies to switch to operating trains with a single engineer — cost savings and layoffs, but, one could argue, more expensive in the end.

But the simple fact is that investigations are bad for politics.

They don’t happen fast enough: opposition politicians in particular want to jump on issues when they are fresh in the public mind, not when the subject has actually been thoroughly investigated.

Politically, you want to be seen to be doing something right away, especially if it is right away enough to get your mug on the television news every night.

It sounds vampirish, but it is the bare-knuckle way that politics works. It doesn’t, however, supply much light with its heat. And the problem is that heat alone warps — the investigators have to be keenly aware that, if a parallel parliamentary investigation is underway, every step they take, every conclusion they offer, is going to be part of the parliamentary circus.

Now, politics in this case is a two-way street: the Tories, by blocking the immediate hearings, are clearly hoping to have their cake and eat it, too.

They can appear to support the review sometime in the future, while realizing at the same time that their commitment will fade away if this session of Parliament ends, as it is likely to.

But the fact is that the actual professional investigation of the Lac-Megantic crash will take time — and it is being done by skilled professionals dealing with complex issues, massive devastation and the near-incineration of physical evidence.

The Transportation Safety Board will do its job — and, as always, if, during that investigation, it finds issues that need to be addressed immediately, it will make those issues known.

After all, Transport Canada,

acting on this week’s information, issued an emergency directive ordering rail companies to stop leaving unmanned equipment on main lines.

Politicians are not investigators: they have no special knowledge about burn rates or brake friction, about train weights or oil vapour temperature explosion risks. They don’t really know about fisheries science, either — although some like to pretend that they do — or about carbon sequestration or rising Arctic temperatures or carcinogens or genetically modified foods.

That’s not what they were elected for.

You can make the argument that they were elected for oversight, but you have to have facts, studies and conclusions before you can begin to oversee anything.

Too many cooks spoil the broth: too many politicians, jumping on the bandwagon too early, spoil any chance of letting a slow and steady — but exceedingly thorough — process reach an accurate conclusion.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor.


Organizations: House of Commons Transport Committee, Canadian Pacific, Transportation Safety Board Transport Canada

Geographic location: Lac-Megantic, Montreal, Maine Atlantic Arctic

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Recent comments

  • david
    July 27, 2013 - 15:16

    CN and CP will be crucified at the alter for the sins of the completely different beast, the 'short line' railroad. For those who don't recall the early 1980's, short lines were the politically-conceived, knee-jerk solution to Class 1 rail lines that no longer served much economic purpose, and were not profitable to run anymore. Politicians stepped in , meddled in something they know the standard "squadoosh" about, and dictated that special-purpose entities take over the routes "for the good of the small towns" they passed through. Well, guess what the universal strategy was for these money losing experiments? Why, cut costs, cut safety and keep employee numbers low...d'uh! So, now.....who wants to have an "inquiry to cover their guilty butts? Who wants to legislate new rules and laws? Why, it's the people who spawned this mess in the first place...the Canadian idiot politican! Pure, crass, political BS folks.

  • Joe
    July 27, 2013 - 09:25

    ??????? Isn't the business community which is always saying we have to act quickly. If a business is losing inventory, it does not take time to do a study on why it has a loss. In the normal course of events you might be correct, but we know that this government does not take advice from others because it is all knowing and can decide the best approach on it's own. It looks like with the seriousness of the situation a little oversight on these lords and masters would give a better result and just maybe save a life or two. Without waiting until after the next election or perhaps never for some action to be taken.