News / Canada

TSB calls for improved safety at rail crossings after death of man in wheelchair

A railway crossing is seen in Moncton, N.B. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Stephen Harel was fatally struck by a CN train at the crossing after his electric wheelchair allegedly became stuck on the tracks in the early morning hours of July 27, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

A railway crossing is seen in Moncton, N.B. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Stephen Harel was fatally struck by a CN train at the crossing after his electric wheelchair allegedly became stuck on the tracks in the early morning hours of July 27, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

MONCTON, N.B. — In the early morning darkness of July 27, 2016, a CN freight train with three locomotives, 169 loaded freight cars, and 18 empty freight cars was travelling through Moncton, N.B., when the crew spotted a dull light and the silhouette of someone in a wheelchair on the tracks - but there was no stopping in time.

Steven Harel, whose wheelchair had become stuck and immobilized at the Robinson Street railway crossing was struck and killed by the 12,200 tonne train.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada released its report on the accident Thursday — calling on federal and local authorities across the country to improve safety at railway crossings designated for people using wheelchairs and other assistive devices.

The TSB says its investigation found that several crossing conditions contributed to the accident, including a void in the asphalt and the lack of visual clues to navigate safely.

Investigator Don Ross said there had been repairs made at the crossing not long before the accident.

"Reflective lines markings the sidewalk's edge were not repainted after the new asphalt was applied, nor were there any requirements to do so. Moreover, while the new asphalt covered most of the crossing, it did not cover the entire east sidewalk area. This left a small void or hole near the north rail," he said.

He said investigators ran numerous simulations using similar wheelchairs.

"An identical motorized wheelchair would proceed forward, following the white line up to the new pavement and then along the paved right edge of the sidewalk. In each case the chair's right front wheel dropped into the void, causing the chair to turn right into the gravel."

He said the height difference to the gravel would leave the wheelchair unable to reverse.

Ross said since 1990 there have been seven occurrences in Canada of wheelchairs caught at rail crossings reported to the TSB. Five, including the Moncton incident, were fatal.

TSB board member Faye Ackermans said despite new standards introduced in 2014, there remains a clear need for additional improvements.

She said federal regulations required railway companies and road authorities to share information on certain crossings by November 2016, but many have yet to comply.

"This needs to happen, because until such crossings are designated and the information is shared, Canadians — particularly those using assistive devices — will continue to be at an elevated risk at public crossings," Ackermans said Thursday.

More than two million Canadian adults identify as having a mobility disability, including 300,000 wheelchair users.

Ackermans said upgrades at crossings need to go beyond surface improvements and the board is recommending that the Department of Transport work with stakeholders to identify options and then upgrade the regulations.

She said there are many options to be considered.

"Adding extra lights or auditory cues, changing the width or texture of the walking surface, filling the gaps along the rail with displaceable material, or even changing the angle of the sidewalk so that it is more perpendicular to the rail thereby reducing the risk of a wheel getting stuck," she said. 

Since the accident, CN has made several repairs to the Robinson Street crossing, including widening the paved area and repainting the lines, and the city has designated it as a crossing for persons with assistive devices. 

Harel's parents are suing CN Rail, the City of Moncton, a wheelchair manufacturer and a medical equipment supplier in New Brunswick's Court of Queen's Bench for unspecified damages related to his death.

The lawsuit alleges that CN Rail and the City of Moncton neglected their "duty of care" to inspect, maintain and fix the railway tracks, crossings and city streets and sidewalks, and also failed to facilitate safe public transportation and prevent accidents, particularly with regard to wheelchair-specific hazards.

Among the claims detailed in the lawsuit, none of which have been proven in court, it's alleged the city and the railway company were both aware that the railway track was a source of accidents for wheelchair users, and failed to take corrective measures.

Brian Murphy, the lawyer for the parents, said Thursday that the family was given an advance copy of the report.

"There are some pretty solid recommendations there," he said.

"We stand by our suit. This could have, and should have been avoided."

Murphy said the parents aren't looking for financial gain, but want things improved for people like their son.

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