WINNIPEG - Rail safety is expected to dominate the agenda when provincial transportation ministers meet with their federal counterpart for the first time since the deadly train derailment in Quebec.
Manitoba Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said Canadians deserve better rail safety measures in the wake of the Lac Megantic derailment in July which decimated the town's core and killed 47 people.
"This should be top of the agenda and the focus should be on constructive discussion about how we can learn from what happened and hopefully ensure something like that never happens again," Ashton said in an interview ahead of Wednesday's meeting in Winnipeg.
Quebec Transport Minister Sylvain Gaudreault said he has asked that rail safety be discussed at the annual meeting.
''The safety of our modern transport services, be it for people or for goods, is essential,'' Gaudreault said in a statement Tuesday.
''The tragic train accident in Lac Megantic last July 6 has placed this topic among our most pressing concerns. The tragedy shows how imperative it is to maintain rigorous safety measures.
''I hope to use this meeting to outline Quebec's vision in transport safety, all the while respecting the jurisdiction of all parties.''
The issue has remained under scrutiny with two train derailments in Calgary over the summer, as well as a tragic collision earlier this month between an Ottawa transit bus and VIA passenger train which killed six people and left more than 30 injured.
The federal government should consider rerouting trains carrying hazardous goods so they don't go through populated areas, Ashton said.
Trucks carrying hazardous materials regularly detour city centres while trains generally cut right through them, he added. Rail lines now sit on prime real estate that could be better used, he said.
"That is part of the long-term picture," Ashton said.
At the very least, Ashton said the federal government should require more transparency so local authorities know exactly what trains are carrying. Right now, he said cities and towns have no idea what kind of dangerous cargo travels through their communities.
"We want to see disclosure," Ashton said. "With some of the technology that's out there ... there should be a much greater ability to track various shipments. At the minimum, we want our first responders to know what they're dealing with."
Canadian municipalities have been asking for the same transparency. Following the train derailments in Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi expressed frustration at the lack of information about train cargo.
"City staff are risking their lives to deal with these emergencies and we are still unable to get specific information quickly about what is on these trains in order to ensure the safety of our residents," Nenshi said at the time. "This simply cannot continue."
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities formed a rail-safety working group shortly after the Lac Megantic derailment and asked Transport Canada for more information about the transportation of hazardous goods. But federal officials have cautioned that such information could pose a safety risk if it fell into the wrong hands.
Claude Dauphin, president of the federation, said municipalities have a right to know since their citizens are the ones risking their lives if something goes wrong.
"Municipal first responders are on the front line, that's why we need to be well-equipped," Dauphin said. "We need to know what kind of dangerous goods or materials are passing through our communities. Right now, we don't."
Re-routing rail lines to avoid residential areas would be a huge challenge since Canada was built around the rail system, Dauphin said. Municipalities need a quicker solution to help prevent future tragedies, he said.
Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt declined an interview request.
Rail safety won't be the only issue on the agenda.
Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray said he's looking forward to the meeting since he hasn't been able to get either Raitt or her predecessor, Denis Lebel, on the phone for six months.
Murray, who used to be mayor of Winnipeg, said he will be pushing for a national transportation policy, as well as more federal funding to improve provincial roads and bridges.
"The federal government says it wants to work with the province and it doesn't even return a minister's phone call for six months," Murray said. "This has been a one-way conversation. We do have to sit down with the federal government."
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