12/17/2014 03:54 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST

Long-planned federal measures aim to reduce rail-crossing crashes

OTTAWA - Long-awaited regulations aimed at preventing deadly collisions between trains and vehicles will require installation of new signs and warning lights at many rail crossings.

The regulations, to take full effect over the next seven years, establish consistent safety standards at federally regulated crossings and clarify the responsibilities of rail companies and road authorities.

Transport Canada says the regulations will ensure enforceable safety levels at approximately 14,000 public and 9,000 private grade crossings along 42,650 kilometres of railway track.

"This brings all grade crossings in Canada to the same standard," the department said Wednesday.

"Railway companies and road authorities will be required to meet these safety standards when building or altering grade crossings as well as bring existing grade crossings in compliance, through measures such as the introduction of signs and warning systems."

Federal transportation safety officials have been urging the government for over a decade to do more to prevent level-crossing crashes.

From 2009 to 2013, collisions between vehicles and trains at crossings caused an average of 26 deaths and 26 serious injuries a year.

A morning collision between a double-decker city bus and a Via Rail train claimed six lives in Ottawa last year.

The government says the regulations address the Transportation Safety Board of Canada's concern — noted on its latest watchlist — that the risk of trains colliding with vehicles remains too high.

The safety board said Transport Canada must implement new regulations, develop better standards or guidelines for certain types of crossing signs, and continue its leadership in assessing crossing safety and funding improvements.

"A comprehensive solution must also include consultation with provincial authorities and further public driver education on the dangers at railway crossings," the safety board said.

Managing safety at grade crossings has long been a jurisdictional tangle, requiring co-operation between 1,460 municipal and provincial road authorities, 95 aboriginal bands, 32 railway companies and many individual private authorities, Transport Canada noted Wednesday.

The new regulations increase collaboration, require information-sharing, and define various roles, the department said. They spell out who is responsible for the design, construction, maintenance and inspection of the crossing surface, signage and warning systems.

Based on the notion a "safe crossing is a visible crossing," the regulations contain formulas for figuring out the size of an area that players must keep clear of anything that could block a driver's view of an oncoming train.

Also under the regulations:

— Railway equipment cannot block a crossing for more than five minutes when a road user requires passage, unless the equipment is moving;

— When emergency vehicles need to cross tracks, railway companies must immediately clear a crossing;

— If a municipality has a safety concern relating to obstructions at a crossing, parties must work together to find a solution. After 90 days with no solution, the municipality can inform Transport Canada.

Other safety features include design plans for warning systems and standards for maintaining, inspecting and testing traffic control devices, Transport Canada says.

"Railway companies are now required to keep records of these activities and of any system malfunctions or failures for a minimum of two years."

About $100 million in expenditures — almost four-fifths of the total cost of implementing the regulations — is expected to be covered by railway companies, the regulations say. "Some of these costs will be offset by the value of benefits associated with fewer collisions, resulting in reduced property damage and lower derailment costs."

Over the next 20 years, Transport Canada estimates, the regulatory improvements should decrease the total number of collisions by 956, fatalities by 109 and serious injuries by 149.

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