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Better warnings needed at train crossings: report

BROADVIEW, Sask. - A report into a deadly crash between a train and a camper van warns the risk of such accidents remains until better warning systems are required at railway crossings without bells, lights and gates.

The Transportation Safety Board report is based on an investigation into a collision that killed four people in Broadview, Sask., in broad daylight in August 2012.

"Considering the serious consequences that can result from a crossing accident and the technological advancements that have been made, the board is concerned that, in the absence of timely implementation of low-cost alert systems, the risk of accidents at passive crossings will continue," reads the report released Wednesday.

The report says the van was driven by a tired 15-year-old novice driver on a road where trees and brush made it difficult to see the tracks.

The Canadian Pacific Railway freight train travelling at 85 km/h sounded its horn and had its lights on, but struck the van broadside at a railway crossing that only had standard reflector warning signs.

Passive rail crossings are common in rural Canada. The report notes there have been 658 accidents over the last 10 years at passive crossings, which resulted in 59 deaths and 107 serious injuries.

The board said equipping such crossings with advance warning devices triggered by trains to warn drivers would improve safety.

But Rob Johnston, a safety board spokesman, said it would be very expensive to equip all rail crossings with automated gates and bells.

He said research is needed to find an affordable alternative.

"What we really wanted to do is to push the bar a little bit, because essentially passive crossings have been like this for over 100 years," Johnston said from Ottawa.

"We are saying there should be something better out there with today's technology. What that is is not our place to say, but we are trying to push the regulator to look at alternatives."

The regulator is Transport Canada, which has been reviewing draft regulations for improving safety at railway crossings for almost 25 years.

Last month Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced proposals to improve safety standards at 23,000 federally regulated rail crossings to help reduce collisions and prevent derailments.

The proposals would require railways and governments responsible for roads to meet improved and enforceable safety standards, including better signs and warning systems. They call for clear site lines around rail crossings, including requiring them to be free of trees, brush, buildings or railway equipment.

"Other safety features include design plans for warning systems and standards for maintaining, inspecting and testing traffic control devices," reads one of the proposals.

Transport Canada said it is working to establish a research project to develop less costly railway crossing warnings that would be an intermediate option between signs and all-out automated bells, flashing lights and gates.

The department did not provide any details, but noted all decisions rest with the federal government.

"While Transport Canada frequently recommends enhancements that would provide a level of safety at public crossings, which is beyond the basic requirements, railways and road authorities must make the decision to undertake these enhancements," Brooke Williams, a department spokesman, wrote in an email from Ottawa.

The federal government is giving people until May to comment before regulations are changed.

A seven-year-old boy from Turner Valley, Alta., and his 11-year-old sister were among the four people killed at Broadview.

The children's mother, Vicki, was a passenger in the van and was injured in the crash. Her son, Luke, was driving and was seriously injured.

An 11-year-old girl from Chestermere, Alta., and an 18-year-old woman from the Whitewood district in Saskatchewan also died.

No one on the train was hurt.

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

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