07/08/2013 13:20 EDT | Updated 09/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Train disaster fuels debate over safety of oil shipments

The deadly derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., is fuelling a fierce political debate over rail safety and the implications of a sharp rise in shipments of petroleum products by train.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who likened the scene to a "war zone" during a weekend visit to the site, said there are many questions in the wake of the tragedy, but he cautioned Canadians not to leap to quick conclusions.

"It would really not be responsible to comment without knowing all the facts," he said Sunday. "The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is already undertaking a full investigation of this. I presume there’s also going to be a police investigation because of what I've heard has transpired here. So obviously, we will see the results of these investigations, and we will act on their recommendations."

It's still not clear what caused Saturday's derailment and explosion of the crude-carrying train owned by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd., but it may have been caused by the release of the train’s brakes. At least five people were killed, another 40 are missing and 30 downtown buildings were incinerated.

Families deserve answers

"I understand emotions here on this subject are very high," Harper said. "The information that I’ve seen about what has transpired — it may not be complete but it is very, very concerning about why this occurred. But that all said, there are proper authorities to investigate this, and I don’t want to say anything that would inhibit what the police or the Transportation Safety Board have to do in terms of arriving at their own conclusions and taking the steps they may ultimately deem necessary."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who also visited the town, suggested federal cuts and lax regulation were to blame.

"There has been a very large increase in traffic of petroleum products by rail — the regulation of that has to follow suit," he said.

While the immediate priority is to support the grieving families and town, the disaster has raised critical questions about rail safety, he said.

"My thoughts and prayers are with those families — that's our first priority today — but there's still lots of questions and those same families deserve answers to those questions," Mulcair, who represents the Quebec riding of Outremont, said Sunday.

'Culture of safety'

"One of the first roles of government is to ensure public safety, and we'll do everything we can to make sure the public is safe from this type of thing in the future. But people are also going to be asking a lot of questions how something like this could have happened."

Mike Winterburn, director of communications for Transportation Minister Denis Lebel, insisted the government is strengthening rail safety in Canada by investing $72 million in development of regulation, inspections and oversight activities, and research and development.

"Now is not the time to focus on partisan politics," he told CBC News. "Right now we need to focus on ensuring the safety and security of those in Lac-Mégantic. Rail safety oversight activities have not been cut. While increasing the number of front-line rail inspectors and auditors, Transport Canada has found administrative savings through the streamlining of information technology services and other efficiencies."

Winterburn also noted that the new Railway Safety Act that took effect this past May requires rail companies to create and maintain a "culture of safety" and includes tough penalties for violations. Since 2007, train accidents in Canada have decreased by 23 per cent, while train derailments have decreased by 26 per cent, he said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau cancelled a scheduled event at the Calgary Stampede and is travelling to Lac-Mégantic today.