POLITICS

Ottawa asks Ontario university to find better rail crossing safety tools

09/23/2013 02:03 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST
OTTAWA - Transport Canada has asked experts at an Ontario university to study the safety of level crossings, but the agency insists the request has nothing to do with last week's deadly collision between a city bus and a Via Rail train.

Public Works and Government Services Canada posted a notice Monday awarding a contract to the University of Waterloo for continued research into Transport Canada's system for evaluating rail crossing safety.

On Sept. 18, six people were killed and 30 more were injured when an Ottawa bus crashed through a lowered safety barricade and slammed into an oncoming Via locomotive. All of the dead and injured were on board the bus.

Transport Canada spokeswoman Karine Martel insisted Monday there was no connection between crash and the university's research, which she said began about 10 years ago.

The agency's latest requisition for improvements to the system, known as GradeX, was signed in February 2013, Martel said.

The resulting two-year, $120,000 study will look into whether there are better ways for inspectors to assess the potential dangers of railway crossings.

It will gauge the effectiveness of GradeX, a computer program used by inspectors to evaluate risks at level crossings and identify ways to improve safety.

The contract tender identifies GradeX as "a one-of-a-kind, customized decision-support tool for railway safety inspectors to evaluate risks at grade crossings and identify cost-effective safety improvement strategies."

The department said the University of Waterloo is the intended recipient of the contract because it's the only known agency in North America with the specialized knowledge and expertise needed.

"The research team consists of both established and new researchers with extensive expertise in the fields of road and railway safety," says the advance contract award notice.

"They have been working on the issues related to highway-railway crossings over a decade and have already established reputation both in Canada and internationally."

Researchers will look at historical data on train collisions at Canadian crossings, investigate ways to prevent future accidents and determine how much it'll cost to implement new safety measures.

"The end goal is to reduce the injury and fatality rates at railway grade crossings," says the tendering document.

Other universities or firms which feel they meet the study criteria have until Oct. 9 to bid for the contract.

Before the study is even completed, new rail safety regulations are expected to be in place. Those regulations are to be unveiled "this year," Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said on the weekend.

A funeral for one of the victims of last week's crash, 21-year-old Carleton University student Connor Boyd, was held Monday. And the investigation has turned its focus to double-decker bus that was involved.

On Friday, Transportation Safety Board investigators said that the safety gates, lights and bells at the level crossing in southwest Ottawa were functioning as they were supposed to and had been activated 47 seconds prior to impact.

The train's crew also applied the emergency brakes, but only two seconds prior to the crash. They did not sound the train's whistle because that was forbidden under a municipal ban in the area.

Raitt appeared to leave some safety issues to the rail industry and other levels of government to sort out, saying Sunday that new ground rules would spell out how the rail industry and municipalities — or provinces — work out "the appropriate level of safety" at level crossings.