The Via Rail train that derailed in a fatal weekend crash west of Toronto went into a track-switch at more than four times the authorized speed, with none of the three engineers touching the brakes, investigators say.
Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Tom Griffith said Thursday that it is hard to determine why engineers chose to go so fast without voice-recorder data and reiterated a TSB call for this feature in train cabs.
“Though we know the excess speed caused the derailment this is not the end of the investigation,” he said. “We had two experienced people in the front of that train. Why they were [speeding] that’s what we’ve got to find out.”
The crew should have seen two signal lights warning of the approaching crossover near Burlington but investigators found that the train’s speed had barely slackened after accelerating away from the nearest station. The TSB is seeking to confirm CN’s contention that the signals, which are part of its infrastructure, were working properly.
Data from the so-called black box show that the train, which was on time, was travelling at approximately 67 miles per hour when it went out of control. Under Transport Canada regulations, which follow industry convention by measuring in Imperial, it should not have been going faster than 15 miles per hour through that switch.
From where passenger Josh Dykstra was sitting, he said it didn’t feel like the train was speeding because its pace felt consistent with the rest of the journey. But he noted that before the derailment, he never would have known about track-switches and the necessity of slowing down.
“We didn’t know where the tracks were changing or anything like that. Usually it goes around that speed,” said Mr. Dykstra, who was taken to a hospital in Burlington for tendon sprains and swelling.
“You definitely felt it when it derailed,” said Mr. Dykstra, who was busy studying in the moments before the train went off the tracks. “But we didn’t know why.”
Via Rail spokesman Malcolm Andrews noted that the investigation was just beginning but said there was no justification for an engineer ignoring the speed limit. “We want to find out why,” he said.
Mr. Griffith would not say that human error was to blame for the crash but, in response to a reporter’s questions, noted that there is a speedometer in the cab and a way to kill power even if the throttle is seized.
“You have a valve in front of you that shuts everything down, puts the brakes on, shuts her down,” he said.
A lawyer involved in a proposed class-action suit said that the TSB’s finding, while still incomplete, boded well for their case.
“Certainly the preliminary findings are positive for the lawsuit,” said Jonathan Ptak, with Koskie Minsky LLP.
“Now we have some clear evidence that excess speed was at least a factor. So there’s a question as to whether or not the crash or derailment was caused by driver error or by a mechanical problem.”
The Toronto-bound train had travelled less than two kilometres from Aldershot station on Sunday when it changed tracks by entering a remotely controlled crossover switch. It was there that it derailed.
The locomotive engine at the front was destroyed as it turned on its side and slammed into a building, sending passengers flying. The accident injured 45 people, and Via Rail employees Ken Simmonds, 56, and Peter Snarr, 52, of Toronto, and a trainee, Patrick Robinson, 40, of Cornwall were killed.
The TSB’s Mr. Griffith said that trains approaching crossovers are warned by signal lights to reduce speed. Most of the time the speed has to be kept below 45 miles per hour. In some cases, including the rarely used crossover where the train derailed Sunday, they cannot exceed 15 mph. Different lights are used to inform engineers which speed limit they should respect.
Mr. Griffith said that, without a voice-recorder, they may never know the full details of the moments preceding the crash, including who was at the controls. But he said that detail isn’t relevant to the investigation.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If the trainee was at the controls he’s under the direct supervision of the locomotive engineers sitting right beside him. If he does something wrong he’ll be verbally told to stop it or the other engine-man will reach out, touch the valve, shut the train down.”
- With a report from Carys Mills