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Riding the rails

OTTAWA, Ont. - Every year more than 40 heavy trucks are involved in accidents at Canadian rail crossings, with more than 550 accidents taking place since 2000. In the past 10 years, 22 drivers have be...

OTTAWA, Ont. – Every year more than 40 heavy trucks are involved in accidents at Canadian rail crossings, with more than 550 accidents taking place since 2000. In the past 10 years, 22 drivers have been killed and 38 injured in such accidents. Those numbers may seem small in light of the thousands of successful rail crossings each day, but even one fatality is too many when most rail crossing collisions can be prevented, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

The TSB is mandated to advance safety in various modes of transportation, including investigations into rail, air, marine and pipeline accidents. The organization uses data collected from accidents to help offer solutions to both the government and the industries involved.

Each accident tends to have a unique set of causes which has led to the crash, says TSB director of rail investigations, Ian Naish. In some cases, TSB accident reports focus on improvements to the site or equipment of a rail crossing.

For example, in Alberta, the investigation of a truck collision with a stationary train highlighted safety problems with the warning signs.

A truck-train collision in Kingston, Ont., revealed that lowbed tractor-trailers can get hung up on banked tracks that are designed to help trains negotiate curves. TSB accident reports have resulted in improvements that reduce rail crossing risks to truckers, the organization says.

In other cases, investigations reveal truck-related and driver-related safety issues. Many of these involve visibility and audibility problems. For example, in an accident in Quebec, a driver’s side mirror obstructed his view of an approaching train.

The position of the mirror, coupled with the angle of the train tracks meant the driver only had a couple of seconds of visual warning and perhaps one second of audible warning from the horn before impact. Drivers not hearing the train’s warning horn prompted an Ontario investigation focused on the noise levels in a closed cab.

“These investigations improve our understanding of the safety issues involved and reinforce the importance of driver caution in approaching rail crossings,” TSB officials said. Extra special care must be taken at private rail crossings as trains only whistle at public crossings. Several derailments involving trucks at private crossings have occurred as a result, Naish says.

Fatigue and driver training are also often contributing factors with truck-train collisions.

“A lot of the guys work long hours and obviously the more fatigued you are, the less alert you are,” says Naish, adding that many drivers endanger themselves by driving when sick as well.

Driver carelessness and error are some of the most preventable of all accidents involving trucks and trains. “For example, when you run through a stop sign: you may have used a crossing for years and never seen a train, so there’s not that expectation that there will be one,” Naish says.

Naish points out that while the number of crossing accidents involving heavy trucks is decreasing – with 37 accidents reported in 2006 – the number of accidents resulting in derailments is increasing. Derailments involving dangerous goods may put rescue personnel and local residents at risk, Naish points out.

“There’s a very high probability if a heavy truck hits the train, it’s going to derail,” he says. “When a heavy truck hits a train, it can cause a big mess and a driver can lose his life.”

To educate the public on railway crossing awareness, Transport Canada and the railways have a program called Operation Lifesaver. Presentations about issues at level crossings are given and the organizations also have videotapes and brochures available specifically aimed at truck drivers. The simplest thing a driver can do is just be extra careful when approaching rail crossings and always obey all signals and signs, Naish says.

“Try not to let your guard down when approaching a level crossing and just be aware there could be a 10,000-tonne train coming,” he says.

For more information on rail crossing accidents and safety solutions, visit the TSB Web site at where complete investigation reports are posted.

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