Lac Megantic Rail Disaster May Require Government to More Effectively Monitor Rail Shipments

In the Aftermath of the Lac Magantic rail disaster, questions emerge on how safe Canada’s rail system truly is.  With years of heavy lobbying by the rail industry to self-regulate in Canada, Transport Canada and the rail safety management system in Canada needs to undergo significant and extensive change to ensure another rail disaster of similar (or greater) intensity never happens again.  While indications of human error persist (fire, and lack of hand-braking on the train), many questions are beginning to emerge on how much visibility Transport Canada has into this domain.  As Transport Canada has the safety mandate for rail surface modal transportation in Canada, many citizens assume they know what cargo is being moved domestically within the country.  The truth is they don’t and the media is beginning to expose this.

As an example for comparison, the Canada Border Services Agency requires a cargo report for all rail shipments crossing the border into Canada.  While they have visibility into what is crossing the international border between Canada and the United States, and the authority to interdict and inspect, no Government agency or analyst has access to similar data when cargo is moved between 2 domestic points in Canada.  No visibility means -no ability to assess risk to safety and security, which in turns means -no ability to interdict and prevent threats from occurring.  Transport Canada sets the rules with legislation and regulation, but has no ability to monitor, control, or interdict potential threats when they exist. -And that’s just the way the industry wants it. 

While Transport Canada should be dynamically measuring the risk to health, safety, and security of the rail transportation system, the rail industry is measuring the risk to their bottom line, -desiring less government regulation, interference, and inspection while seeking to increase margins and profitability.  Let’s face it, it’s a business and they want to be successful like any commercial entity.  They aren’t in the business of protecting Canadians.  Security costs money and Transport Canada will likely make several new recommendations including; additional security around parked trains, requirements to augment train crews, and  the usage of safer tank cars when carrying hazardous materials such as crude oil.  The rail industry will not be happy because new requirements will incur new costs.  To compensate for reduced margins, history has shown that the additional costs will increase shipping fees, which in turn pass down to increase commodity prices for the consumer.

What I believe adds the most value for all stakeholders is to increase government visibility into this domain with the railways becoming more transparent.  The most effective way to do this is to require domestic rail cargo shipments be reported to Transport Canada, much like they are for international movements to customs agencies.  Most railways use a data hub collect, share, and pass consists, equipment and container status messages, manifests and rail bills of lading.  Transport Canada could electronically connect to a data hub (like Railinc) or directly to the railways themselves.  The data should be made accessible as soon as it is created so this agency can screen dangerous cargo.  Government can then begin to operate seamlessly with the supply chain by obtaining and screening the data “as and when” it is created.

At one time, CBSA had direct access to CN and CP Rail billing systems to review cargo data for shipments of interest (e.g. seeking potential undeclared or smuggled goods, narcotics, weapons, and prohibited items.) The railways could offer a similar solution for Transport Canada because it’s low in cost, -but while an intelligence analyst can access the data from the billing system, it is not readily available in a manner that facilitates an analytical triage.  I’ve used it as a customs analyst.  It’s a cumbersome way to gain visibility into cargo on any given train because it’s designed for one thing…billing customers.  Today, CBSA receives this data directly into its ACROSS system for use in other internal targeting and intelligence systems.  Transport Canada should seek the same approach by regulating access to domestic rail data “as and when” it is created, by having the railways transmit this data directly or provide it via a hub or value added network (VAN). 

Transport Canada doesn’t need to re-create the data it desires, because it already exists, and in more standards and models than they can think of.  Government agencies often fall down here because they often think they have to invent, and then regulate their desired data elements for transmission.  The rail industry has already been doing this for many years, using AINSI and Edifact standards, so in the interests of saving cost and time, it makes sense to piggy back on the same data messages that are currently shared between the railways and other trade chain partners today.  This way, Transport Canada can be better assured that they receive the same data used “as is/where is”, because the industry is using it too.  Here is a brief table outlining a possible approach for Transport Canada and the rail industry:

Transport Canada’s Checklist  Rail Industry’s Obligation
Meet with the Rail industry and negotiate access to cargo and shipment data.

  • Rail bills of lading
  • Manifests
  • Status Messages
  • Consist Sheets
  • Crew Lists
  • Other Tracking Data available


Make the data available in a transparent fashion. Provide samples for analysis. 
Review and analyze the data and determine whether it provides “rail domain visibility” and “rail situational awareness” Educate Transport Canada on how the data is used, and promote desired formats and standards. 
Develop requirements on how to acquire and collect the data Seek ways to provide the data to Transport Canada in real time to keep costs low and increase timeliness of transmission
Develop requirements on how to present the data to an analyst for decision support No obligation
Develop risk assessment rules to present high risk shipments to the analyst for closer scrutiny and decision No obligation
Develop a Concept of Operations (a command center or watch floor with analysts that will monitor and make decisions to interdict potential and resolve or negate potential safety threats) Support Transport Canada and suggest resolution or threat negation activities
Develop Standard Operating procedures for interdiction of potential threats Support referrals to rail police, request/orders to park trains at desired sidings, remove target cars or rolling stock of concern.
Build or buy a cargo targeting system solution that can ingest, store, and present rail cargo data, and manage risk rules, modules, and lookouts for high risk trains, cars, rolling stock and commodities within. Provide voluntary access or transmission of rail cargo data in the interim before regulations take place.  This demonstrates good faith to the Canadian public.
Stand up a 24/7 watch floor or command center with analysts to monitor and risk assess rail cargo with the authority to issue orders or requests to the railways to negate safety threats.  Oblige and comply with requests to negate threats.
Develop a fair, clear, simple, and articulate enforcement and compliance framework including warnings, AMPS (monetary Penalties), and making public any non-compliance on website or other means. Compliance with the law in line with current or future regulations.

The above checklist could be considered and would be more effective and provide more benefits than regulating the obvious: stronger tank cars, additional train crews, more security and rail police, etc.

Maybe it’s time for the rail industry to become more open and transparent with the Canadian Government and public and welcome new change to make an effective safety management system.  Providing transparent data access for monitoring by the Canadian Government is the best step forward and shows good will on behalf of the rail industry.

So How Can GreenLine Systems Help?

GreenLine has an extensive team of both business and technology subject matter experts.  In short, we know where the data is, how to acquire it for our government customers, and exploit it for risk assessment purposes.  Our customers include:

  • US Navy
  • US Customs and Border Protection
  • Canada Border Services Agency
  • Transport Canada
  • Department of National Defense
  • RCMP
  • The Netherlands Ministry of Defense
  • Barbados Customs
  • and others…

In addition, we build and deploy our proprietary systems which include:

Cargo Targeting Systems (CTS)

Vessel Selectivity System (VSS)

Passenger targeting System (PTS)


For more information, please contact:

Chris Thibedeau,

VP, WW Customs, Regulatory, and Law enforcement Solutions

GreenLine Systems Canada,

151 Slater Street

Suite 807

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

K1P 5H3


Ph: 613-216-7991