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Following railway signal indications

Railway signals are not consistently recognized and followed, which poses risk of serious train collisions or derailments.

 Update – What has been done

  • In November 2016, Board Member Faye Ackermans discussed key rail safety issues identified on the Watchlist at the National Railway Day Conference in Ottawa.
  • Senior TSB officials participated in various meetings with stakeholders such as the Railway Association of Canada and the Canadian Association of Railway Suppliers to initiate discussions around pressing safety issues.

Why this matters

Every year between 2004 and 2013, there was an average of 30 occurrencesFootnote 1 in which a train crew did not respond appropriately to a signal indication displayed in the field—and the average increased to 38 in 2014 and 2015.

This issue has been on the Watchlist since 2012 because there can be significant risk to the train crew, the public, and the environment when this type of occurrence results in a train collision or derailment.

Since 1911, the railway industry in Canada has relied on a system of visual signals known as centralized traffic control (CTC), to control traffic on a significant portion of its network—currently more than 43 000 kilometres of track.Footnote 2

The signals convey information such as operating speed and the operating limits within which the train is permitted to travel. The crew in the locomotive cab are required to identify and communicate the signal indications among themselves (as laid out in the Canadian Rail Operating Rules), and then take required action in how they operate the train.

These administrative defences (signals, communications among the crew, and required actions) are inadequate, though, in situations where the train crew misinterprets or misperceives a signal indication.

What is needed to make train operations in signalled territory safer are additional physical defences that ensure signals are consistently recognized and followed.

A number of Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigations have cited train signal misinterpretation or misperception as a cause or contributing factor in accidents.Footnote 3 The National Transportation Safety Board in the United States has investigated similar accidents and has also concluded that additional physical defences are required.Footnote 4

Some railways in Europe and the United States, for example, have train control systems that will sound an alarm in the locomotive cab or even stop the train in the event that the crew does not respond appropriately to a signal displayed in the field. However, similar technology has not yet been implemented on any federally regulated railway in Canada.

The TSB has been pursuing the need for additional physical defences to help ensure that signals are consistently recognized and followed for more than 15 years. The TSB has made two recommendations on this important issue.Footnote 5 As a result of these two recommendations, Transport Canada and the railway industry are studying the issue, but their work is not sufficiently advanced to indicate if or when additional physical safety defences will be implemented. In the meantime, there is a persistent risk of serious train collisions or derailments in the event of railway signal indications not being followed.

 Action required

This issue will remain on the Watchlist until

  • additional physical safety defences are implemented to ensure that railway signal indications governing operating speed or operating limits are consistently recognized and followed.

 Related information

 Previous Watchlists