OTTAWA ? Transport Canada announced six emergency rail safety rules Tuesday in response to the Lac-Megantic runaway train disaster, but its senior officials declined to answer direct questions about whether it had failed in previous years to respond to weaknesses highlighted both in internal and external audits.
In a news conference responding to recommendations from Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators last Friday, the department said the new rules would be effective immediately and in place for about six months, leading to permanent rule changes for the industry.
The new measures ban one-person crews for locomotives carrying train cars with dangerous goods. They also place new restrictions on unattended trains on main tracks, as well as defining minimum requirements for their braking systems.
?The disaster brought to light several industry practices which have caused some concern,? Gerard McDonald, assistant deputy minister responsible for safety and security at Transport Canada, said in a conference call with reporters.
?Given that and with an abundance of precaution, we thought it would be prudent to implement these measures now.?
The disaster, which claimed dozens of lives and destroyed multiple buildings, also resulted in the release of about 5.7 million litres of oil into the air, water and soil around the small Quebec town, provincial officials estimated this week, making it one of the largest environmental disasters in North American history.
But Transport Canada officials ended the news conference when reporters started asking whether the department failed to respond to previous warnings about oversight weaknesses, raised in an audit by the federal environment watchdog in 2011 and an internal audit done five years earlier.
McDonald suggested that the 2011 audit, which recommended sweeping changes and a new risk management system in the department?s oversight of the transportation of dangerous goods, was not related to the new emergency measures unveiled Tuesday.
He was also unable to respond to revelations from internal Transport Canada documents, released to Greenpeace Canada through access to information legislation, that his department had ?identified no major safety concerns with the increased oil on rail capacity in Canada, nor with the safety of tank cars? used for transportation of dangerous goods.
Despite longstanding warnings from the Transportation Safety Board and others about the existing steel cars and other issues, Transport Canada had dismissed the rail safety concerns in a memo prepared for International Trade Minister Ed Fast in January 2013.
The assistant deputy minister suggested he was not familiar with these recommendations.
?I can?t verify what that document is, so I?m not going to speculate about it,? McDonald said.
Transport Canada announced the emergency measures as some federal MPs returned to Parliament to begin hearings, spearheaded by NDP transport critic Olivia Chow, on rail safety issues.
But MPs eventually accepted a motion from Ontario Conservative Jeff Watson, who questioned whether an immediate parliamentary study was necessary, to delay the hearings, pending further results from the ongoing Transportation Safety Board investigation in Lac-Megantic.
?This committee also should be concerned in deciding whether to commence a study now whether that draws important resources out of the field where they belong,? Watson told the House of Commons transport committee. ?That doesn?t mean there won?t be a study. The answer from this side of the table is not a ?no?, it?s a ?not yet.??
Liberal transport critic David McGuinty supported the Conservative proposal to delay the parliamentary hearings, explaining that it would allow federal officials to focus their attention on the ongoing investigation and rebuilding efforts, but he said the government also needed to provide more details about its actions and its response to the disaster.
Meanwhile, Chow suggested that the Conservatives and Liberals wanted to ?take the summer off,? adding that immediate hearings could help address longstanding safety concerns and reassure other communities fearing similar disasters in their own backyards.
With files from Andrea Hill, Postmedia News
Six emergency rules introduced Tuesday by Transport Canada:
?Ensure that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is operated with fewer than two qualified persons on a main track or sidings;
?Ensure that no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous goods is left unattended on a main track;
?Ensure, within five days of the issuance of the directive, that all unattended controlling locomotives on a main track and sidings are protected from unauthorized entry into the cab;
?Ensure the directional controls, commonly known as reversers, are removed from any unattended locomotives, preventing them from moving forward or backward, on a main track or sidings;
?Ensure that their company?s special instructions on hand brakes are applied to any locomotive attached to one or more cars that is left unattended for more than one hour on a main track or sidings;
?Ensure that, in addition to complying with their company?s special instructions on hand brakes referred to in the item immediately above, the automatic brake is set in full service position and the independent brake is fully applied for any locomotive attached to one or more cars that are left unattended for one hour or less on a main track or sidings.
Source: Transport Canada