Penny-pinching may lead Ottawa to offload transportation funding

by David Bradley

For most municipalities, the 1990’s were characterized by rampant government offloading.

With the federal and provincial governments struggling under mountains of debt, programs were cut and responsibilities pushed downwards to municipalities, who had no choice but to shoulder these new charges.

As the fiscal situation stabilized toward the end of the decade, some municipal governments hoped they would be able to breathe again, because seemingly there was nothing left to offload.

Or was there?

Just when many thought it was safe to assume that the bleeding had stopped, new national railway-crossing safety guidelines are now being considered by Ottawa, rules that could lead to a massive shift of costs and responsibility from the federal government to the municipal sector.

As road users, the trucking industry has always been concerned by rail-crossing safety. Often, the special needs of heavy trucks are not sufficiently taken into account in rail-crossing design, causing unsafe conditions where rail and road intersect.

Many crossings were designed at a time when truck weights and dimension were different. Some railway lines, for instance, may be closer to roads with stop signs or traffic signals than the longest trucks.

Road approach and departure designs and approach surface and maintenance are particularly important to truck deceleration and acceleration – truck performance characteristics which relate directly to crossing safety.

Being a member of Transport Canada’s newly created Railway Safety Consultative Committee, when the proposed guidelines were released last summer, gave the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) and the trucking industry the opportunity to participate in a consultative process from which it had been virtually excluded in the past.

Given their technical complexity, the CTA commissioned an expert review of the proposed regulations.

What it found was not only of interest to us, but we think will be of interest to municipalities.

The author of the report, a former executive with the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), found that the new rules maintained many of the problems seen in the current regime – lack of jurisdictional uniformity; poor design; ill-defined funding and inspection mechanisms.

In fact, the study suggests that these were actually exacerbated through the creation of a new entity called the “responsible authority” – another name for municipality.

According to the study, this new entity will have much of the responsibility for maintenance of grade crossings including improving and standardizing physical conditions and risk mitigation devices or structures (e.g., flashing lights and bell and gates).

Most significantly, the proposed regulations require that responsible authorities perform detailed safety assessments rather than rely on federal safety regulators’ inspections, as is currently the case. In addition to foisting new costs on municipalities in the form of safety inspections, this requirement could have important legal liability consequences for municipal governments and would probably give rise to the need to upgrade with automated warning devices at many more crossings.

There are over 15,000 public crossings without automated warning devices in Canada. At the current level of federal funding it would probably take decades to upgrade them all. Funding to support these types of upgrades is now limited to about $7 million a year and has traditionally been spent to upgrade crossings that have been the site of fatal crashes even if other sites were as dangerous or even more so.

The proposed regulations appear to absolve the federal government and Transport Canada of any responsibility with respect to ensuring that public safety is maintained at railway grade crossings. The regulations are also silent on what role the railway companies, as the users, should play in its upkeep. This would appear to shift the full burden of ensuring that crossings are safe squarely onto the shoulders of municipalities.

In addition to foisting new burdens on municipalities for the maintenance of railway crossings, the proposed regulations also specify the need for “safety reviews” to be conducted by the ubiquitous responsible authority.

This would amount to requiring municipalities to conduct occurrence investigations that are now the legislative mandate of the TSB. Responsible authority investigations would therefore lead to a duplication of effort and more significantly, a further erosion of the federal role in ensuring railway-crossing safety.

For the trucking industry, the proposed regulations fail to address long-standing and well-documented safety issues.

But by shifting the onus for safety on to municipalities, they also run the risk of creating a checkerboard inspection and maintenance regime that will make system-wide safety solutions impossible.

As drafted, these rules would appear to be designed more to improve the fiscal and legal position of the federal government than improving safety at our railway crossings.

The federal government is expected to publish these regulations sometime in early 2001. n

– David Bradley is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

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