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TSB calls on city to make bus/railway crossings safer

The city should take more action to prevent OC Transpo buses from blowing through railway crossings where the signal is activated and flashing.

That's the message from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which has issued two safety advisory letters to the city following a review of such incidents and reported malfunctions of the signalling at the location of September's fatal bus-train crash.

Since that crash there have been four cases of buses failing to stop for the flashing signals. In three of those cases the drivers indicated that they felt they wouldn't be able to safely stop the bus in time.

"Those are for various reasons and some of the explanations are completely understandable, but we thought that it was also an important time for us to make this other safety message to the general public at large that you have to take care, drive appropriately for the road conditions and slow down when you're approaching any railway crossing," said Rob Johnston, the manager for head office and central regional operations with the Rail/Pipeline Investigations branch of the Transportation Safety Board.

The TSB noted that while failing to stop at railway crossing signals when they are activated is a violation under most provincial highway traffic acts, they may not necessarily apply to vehicles operating on private roads like the Transitway.

In fact, in one instance of a bus traversing the crossing on October 30th, OC Transpo stated that it was "not illegal to go through flashing train lights." The TSB reported in that case a supervisor met with the driver several days later and suggested the driver "hover" over the brake when nearing a railway crossing so that he or she could be prepared to stop if the lights start flashing.

The TSB suggested that additional warning lights on both sides of the crossing may be required to alert drivers to be prepared to stop.

Investigators also noted that if the weather conditions are adverse, then even driving at the posted speed limit may be dangerous when approaching a railway crossing.

The TSB also recommended the city work with Via Rail to come up with a standard procedure should the railway signal malfunction the way it did on February 11th, when the gate failed to rise after the train had already passed.

In that case OC Transpo supervisors were notified, but three buses went through the crossing and a supervisor tried to lift the south gate while the bells and lights remained activated.

"Trains have the right-of-way and can appear at any time," wrote Kirby Jang, the director of investigations for the Rail/Pipeline branch, in one of the safety advisory letters to the city. "No person should access live tracks without proper railway protection or attempt to lift crossing gates that have been activated and deployed."

"Although the parties involved took reasonable steps to minimize the risk at the crossing and there were no adverse consequences, it would appear that there are opportunities to improve safety," Jang continued.

These suggestions are not binding - but Johnston said the city has been good about following their advice so far.

"It's left in the hands of the city and the city has been very cooperative to date," he said. "I'm quite confident that they'll be taking a closer look at the situation."

Barrhaven Ward councillor Jan Harder told reporters at City Hall that they planned to follow the suggestions.

"I think that you all know that we, after the tragedy, we lowered the speed limit from 80 km/h to 50 km/h," she said. "One of the things we're going to do in reaction to this letter is to have a look at further reductions of that."

In a memo to City Councillors, City Manager Kent Kirkpatrick wrote:

"As we have just received these letters, we will review the content thoroughly and continue to work with the TSB and VIA Rail to address matters that have been raised. That said, I can tell you this will include specifically:

  • Installing an amber early warning signal for southbound Transitway traffic;

  • Reviewing potential speed reductions; and

  • Reviewing the bylaw that governs the operations of vehicles on the Transitway."

It's not clear how long it will take to implement changes.

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