OTTAWA - The Harper government's faith in a deregulated railway safety system remains unshaken and won't be abandoned in the wake of the Lac-Megantic tragedy, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt insisted Tuesday, even as the country's top transportation investigator questioned the current amount of oversight.
The tragedy that killed 47 people and incinerated the downtown of the sleepy Quebec village had a myriad of causes, the Transportation Safety Board said in its long-awaited report.
Raitt said keeping the responsibility for railway safety in the hands of rail operators is still "absolutely the way to go." But she was quick to steer blame for the disaster toward Montreal Maine & Atlantic, the now-defunct railway that operated the doomed train.
Raitt also carefully put distance between herself and the department she inherited in last year's cabinet shuffle, which followed the spectacular crash of the crude oil-laden train last July.
The quality of Transport Canada's follow-up audits, especially with short-haul railways, has repeatedly been raised by critics who were quick to accuse the Conservatives of gutting rail safety.
Wendy Tadros, the head of the Transportation Safety Board, gave those critics even more ammunition Tuesday with a report that essentially accuses the government of providing inadequate oversight.
"Who was the guardian of public safety?" Tadros told a news conference. “That is the role of the government — to provide checks, balances and oversight.”
But Transport Canada has been provided with the resources it needs to carry out its mandate, said Raitt, adding she is now looking at the department for answers to some of the transportation watchdog's fundamental concerns.
The notion that Canada's 46,000 kilometres of track can be fully monitored around the clock is simply a non-starter, she added.
"You cannot possibly have enough inspectors at every waypoint, on every train, at every single moment to have that kind of continuous oversight," Raitt said.
The current system of self regulation, in one form or another, has been around for 20 years and has worked well in both airlines and the shipping sector, she added.
"The focus is very much on the department to ensure that they continue to implement (safety management systems) regulations and that companies implement it as well...It is the appropriate way to go."
But the board took aim at Transport Canada, saying it failed to recognize MM&A had urgent safety problems and was not following the rules. The department failed to audit safety procedures at the railway and didn’t do enough inspections.
"We need to remember that in terms of safety, the government puts the rules in place," Raitt said. "The companies are expected to follow the rules. The company did not follow the rules, and that's a very important fact here too.”
New Democrat transport critic Hoang Mai said it's now clear that self-regulation of railways has failed, and he urged the federal government to step up surveillance.
"Conservatives left companies to monitor themselves — an approach that ended in tragedy," Mai said.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the government made two-person crews mandatory on trains carrying hazardous goods. It also introduced more stringent rules around the application of brakes and how unattended trains must be parked.
Officials are also working with industry to phase out older and weaker DOT-111 tanker cars whose thin steel hulls are prone to puncture. That effort, however, won't be completed until 2017.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May called for a public inquiry to explore rail safety shortcomings in Canada.
"We need to bring in a system that can stop or slow a train before certain accidents occur, such as positive train control technology, which is currently being implemented in the U.S.," May said in a statement.
"A full public inquiry is needed to demonstrate the weak safety culture that exists in Canada today at the expense of Canadians."