By Alex Binkley

All locomotives leading a train in Canada must have voice and video recorders (LVVR) in their cabs by Sept. 2, 2022 in what’s considered to be a big step forward in railway safety. The Transportation Safety Board has been calling for the cab recorders since 2003 and a deadly Via Rail accident in 2013 at Burlington, Ont. added to the pressure for recording the actions of train crews to “provide accident investigators with insight into crew communications and actions that can help improve rail safety by reducing the risk of future accidents.”

In announcing the final set of LVVR regulations, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the recordings will “help determine if corrective measures are required to improve rail safety in Canada. Information from these recorders can also be used by railway companies to identify and manage safety risks. I am encouraged by the significant benefits when this technology is used proactively to enhance rail safety management and prevent future accidents,” he said. “Transport Canada has been exploring the use of locomotive voice and video recorders, seeking to balance privacy concerns with safety benefits, since the TSB first recommended this technology.” Authorization for LVVRs was included in the Railway Safety Act passed in 2018. Proposed regulations were released in 2019 and the final ones drafted following consultations on them.

While LLVRs have also been called for by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for years, the American government hasn’t acted on that proposal. The Board repeated its call for them following its investigation of a 2019 collision between two CSX trains in Ohio, in which investigators found that the engineer of one train was impaired by his use of alcohol at the time of the accident. Although post-accident testing also showed the presence of marijuana in the engineer’s system, NTSB investigators could not determine if his use caused any further impairment. Image and sound recordings would have provided investigators and railroad officials more details about the events leading to the accident, the NTSB said a statement. “Here we are, after yet another train collision, once again calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to mandate inward-facing image recorders to verify that train crews are operating in accordance with safety rules and procedures,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “A locomotive cab is a safety-critical workplace that needs to be treated as such.”

Garneau said the recorders “would provide data about in-cab operating employee actions that are not otherwise available, and would further be useful in providing proactive data to strengthen safety management systems and prevent accidents and incidents by providing the opportunity to mitigate risks before accidents occur.” Transport Canada estimates installing the equipment in their locomotives will cost the railways more than $70 million.

In the Burlington investigation report the TSB said that, in the absence of voice and video recorders, it wasn’t possible for its investigators to identify with certainty the dynamics and interaction between the three operating employees leading up to the accident. It was also difficult to determine whether any human factors, such as fatigue, had contributed to the derailment.

In the 2016 version of the Watchlist, the TSB noted that “with no requirement for on-board voice and video recorders on locomotives, key information to advance railway safety may not always be available for accident investigations and proactive safety management,” and that if permitted, locomotive voice and video recordings “could also provide railways with a means to identify and address operational and human factors issues within a proactive safety management system.”

The 2016 Canada Transportation Act Review Report recommended that a formal strategy for the implementation of locomotive voice and video recording technology be developed by 2020. In September 2016, the TSB issued its report on the joint TSB–Transport Canada (TC) study on locomotive voice and video recorders, which concluded that rail safety would be enhanced if the data could be used for proactive safety management. The report noted that the safety benefits of locomotive voice and video recorders extend beyond use for post-accident investigation to also include use for proactive safety management to help identify and mitigate risks before accidents and incidents occur, which could even “reduce the need for reactive investigations.”

In incidents the TSB chooses not to investigate, Transport Canada and the railway will be able to access to randomly selected voice and video data to identify lessons to be learned and implement corrective measures as part of their ongoing safety management and policy development processes. However, there are a number of limitations on what recordings the railways can access to protect employee privacy.