It was just after 3:30 p.m. on July 21 last year, when a Canada Pacific train rammed an SUV traveling north at 90 km/h on Highway 2A north of Waitaskivin. was going to a railroad crossing.
The impact killed the 26-year-old motorist, who was later identified by family friends as two Bree Gwynne, and left the vehicle’s other occupant, her young son, Austin, in serious condition in hospital.
The tragedy became the second fatality at an Alberta railroad crossing nearly 24 hours later, when a 26-year-old woman from Ponoka died at a crossing with Township Road 424 the following afternoon.
The deaths were among seven fatal collisions at level, or grade, rail crossings in the province last year, the second most of any province in Canada.
Postmedia analysis of collision data and rail-crossing inventory from the Transportation Safety Board and Transport Canada shows that Alberta rail crossings are disproportionately dangerous compared to the rest of Canada.
Alberta is home to 2,986 grade crossings, the fourth highest in the country. But no province had more collisions at crossings in both 2021 and 2020 than Alberta, which accounted for the most deaths and serious injuries last year, with Ontario and its 4,570 crossings linked.
A similar trend emerges over a five-year period, in which Alberta leads the country in the number of serious injuries at crossings and surpasses only Ontario in the number of deaths and collisions.
A crossing with 30 Street in an industrial area of Lethbridge led the country in a collision last year, although there were no deaths or serious injuries.
The Waitskiwin area south of Edmonton is home to one of the province’s statistically more troubling crossings: a two-track span cutting through the city’s 47th Avenue, which has seen four incidents since 2013 in which two pedestrians were killed. death and one cyclist is seriously injured.
“They’re a big walking animal, and they take a long time to stop,” said Waitaskiwyn Mayor Tyler Gandham.
He is one of dozens of Alberta communities who, along with railroad companies, other levels of government, band councils, and private officials, have been grappling with the issue of crossing safety for generations.
“Since Wetaskiwin was first incorporated, we have been working in and around the railroad and its crossings,” he said.
“It’s definitely something we’re conscious about and making sure our residents are safe around the crossing.”
change in safety standards
Wetaskiwin’s 47 Avenue crossing is equipped with flashing lights, bells and gates: grade crossings are the strongest form of security available and found on 13 percent of Alberta crossings.
More than 70 percent of crossings, the majority of which are in rural Alberta, are passive crossings where signs are posted but without any automatic warning systems. The remaining 15 percent of the crossings are equipped with flashing lights and bells, but no gates.
In 2012, the Transportation Safety Board called for safety reforms to be passed, noting that “the risk of passenger trains colliding with vehicles in busy rail corridors is very high.”
Two years later, safety standards were changed, new rules were created and a seven-year compliance deadline was established until 2021.
That deadline was later extended to November 28 of this year for high priority crossings and to November 28 of 2024 for all other crossings.
The cross product – the result of multiplying the number of trains by the number of cars each day – is one of the key criteria in determining what level of safety and priority applies to a given crossing.
Flashing lights and bells are required at any crossing above 2,000. If the number exceeds 50,000 then gates should be added. Over 200,000 is the historical standard for building an over or underpass.
work to be done
Data analysis based on those parameters suggests that at least six crossings will require safety upgrades as high priority crossings, four of them east of Edmonton in Beaver County.
Based solely on cross-product criteria, a further 10 low priority crossings may also need to be upgraded, most of them in rural parts of the province but also in the cities of Grande Prairie and Lloydminster.
There are good reasons for crossings to be a safety focus.
Collisions at crossings represent just under 12 percent of all rail collisions, but also represent 37 percent of fatalities and 56 percent of serious injuries.
It’s a situation Transport Canada says it is committed to improving, with a spokesperson writing in an email that the new rules are necessary “to reduce the risk of serious accidents.”
The department says those responsible for the upgrade are on watch, warning it is prepared to implement the new rules, especially after the extended deadline.
“Transport Canada has an extensive inspection program and will take appropriate action if any non-compliance or safety concerns are found.”