OTTAWA Dec 8 Budget cuts have left
safety-related engineering positions vacant in the Canadian
agency responsible for overseeing shipments of dangerous goods,
government records show, fueling worries about trains moving oil
across the country.
Rail safety is in focus with the boom in oil shipments and a
spate of derailments across North America, and the vacancies
create a safety risk, industry experts and Canada's public
engineers' union say.
The chair of the Transportation Safety Board, Kathy Fox,
says there is risk of a spill as long as the government fails to
address its oversight weaknesses and improve tank car standards.
"We don't believe that the current standard is sufficiently
robust to prevent liquid spilling in the event of a derailment
or rail accident, so what we want to see are tougher standards
for tank cars carrying flammable liquids," Fox told Reuters.
A recent analysis by the Department of Transportation's
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimated
that a failure to upgrade existing regulations would lead to the
equivalent of 10 major accidents, costing more than US$18
billion in damages, including fatalities, over the next 20
Retired and current employees from Transport Canada told
Reuters that engineers in the department's dangerous goods
division would be responsible for developing new standards.
Fox said her board had not determined whether staffing
levels were a factor, but said until new standards are in place,
"during this period, we continue to be at risk with large
transport of flammable liquids by rail."
Last year, 47 people were killed in the Quebec town of
Lac-Mégantic after a train carrying crude oil derailed and
Mark Hallman, a spokesman for the Canadian National Railway
Company, declined to comment on Transport Canada's
staffing and resources. But he said the Lac-Mégantic tragedy
highlighted the importance of better standards.
"For CN, tank car design is one of the most important
systemic issues arising from the Lac-Mégantic rail accident,"
Hallman told Reuters. He said the company "strongly supports"
better standards requiring retrofitting or phasing out older
model DOT-111 cars, as well as reinforced standards for new tank
Four oil companies contacted by Reuters, Cenovus Energy
Inc., Suncor Energy Inc, Valero Energy Corp and
One Earth Oil and Gas Inc., declined to comment on Transport
Canada's capacity to introduce new regulations and whether
uncertainty was affecting their budget planning.
"Regulations are always in flux, so that's just an ongoing
fact of life in the industry," said Brett Harris, a spokesman
Fifteen percent of the jobs in Transport Canada's dangerous
goods and rail safety divisions are open across the country,
according to federal records obtained by Reuters. Eight of 19
engineering positions within the Dangerous Goods Division in the
Ottawa region headquarters are unfilled.
In Quebec, a position for the manager of dangerous goods
transportation in the rail safety division is vacant.
Nationally, the vacancies include a superintendent of gas
containment and several specialists on containment means for
Transport Canada said the openings are due to a combination
of budget cuts, early retirements and difficulties competing
with the higher-paid private sector.
Public sector engineers earn base salaries as high as
C$120,000 ($105,000) but still earn about 20 percent less than
in the private sector, based on salary estimates from a survey
of professional engineers in Ontario.
The records show that more than 30 positions in the
dangerous goods and rail safety divisions have been vacant since
2009. Some resulted from 2012 budget cuts that forced four
senior engineers into retirement, including Jean-Pierre Gagnon,
who had been working on a North American plan to improve
standards for the DOT-111 tank cars, the type that punctured
during the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
"The challenges arising from Lac-Mégantic aren't
negligible," said Jean-Paul Lacoursière, a retired professor of
chemical engineering at Quebec's University of Sherbrooke, who
follows the industry.
"There's still much work to be done on determining types of
tank cars, (what to do with) the old generation of tank cars ...
and if there's not enough people to do this work, it's going to
take a lot longer."
Over the past year, Canada has introduced a series of safety
regulations and has pledged to improve its oversight of
dangerous goods transportation. It has improved standards for
handbrakes and put restrictions on single-person crews.
Engineers are crafting new standards to improve safety and
oversight of oil shipments by rail, which have jumped from 500
carloads in 2009 to 160,000 carloads in 2013, according to
But Transport Canada is projecting further reductions to its
workforce under government efforts to eliminate the federal
deficit. It estimates its overall budget will shrink from C$1.7
billion to C$950 million within three years, including about
C$600,000 in cuts to the rail safety and dangerous goods
"It seems the importance of this role (of qualified
engineers) was not taken into consideration when cost-cutting
measures were implemented at Transport Canada," said Debi
Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public
Service of Canada labor union that represents the engineers.
(Reporting by Mike De Souza; Editing by Dan Grebler)