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Safety agency calls for more training, oversight amid rise in runaway freight trains

A soaring number of runaway freight trains highlights the need for better crew training and government oversight of railways, Canada’s transport-safety investigator says.

The Transportation Safety Board issued the recommendations on Wednesday along with a report on its investigation into a Canadian National Railway Co. train that rolled downhill uncontrolled for nearly five kilometres on a mainline track near Toronto in June, 2016.

Faye Ackermans, a board member of the TSB, said the two CN conductors who lost control of the train in a rail yard did not set brakes on the rail cars, and did not have enough experience or training to safely operate the 74-car train, which reached 48 kilometres an hour before coming to a stop on an incline.

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“Ever since the disaster of Lac-Mégantic, Canadians need no reminders of the dangers of runaway trains. Over the last five years the number of these movements has been on the rise,” Ms. Ackermans said at a press conference on Wednesday.

In 2013, an unattended oil train operated by Montreal Maine and Atlantic railway crashed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people and destroying the town’s centre.

The TSB said the number of runaway or “uncontrolled” trains has risen by 10 per cent over the past five years to 62 in 2017. Of the 541 occurrences since 2008, more than half ended in a collision.

Ms. Ackermans said the investigator, which operates at arm’s length from the federal government, has been calling for rules that will ensure better training and qualifications for train crews since 2003 and that safety risks will persist until Ottawa takes action.

The cars “rolled uncontrolled away from a rail yard downhill onto a main track in the largest city in Canada. The employees tasked with moving it lacked the knowledge or experience to properly control it,” Ms. Ackermans said.

Marc Garneau, the federal Transport Minister, has contacted the heads of CN and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. to find out what is behind the rise, and how the railways plan to correct it. “Given the potential consequences and risks involving uncontrolled movements, reversing this trend is paramount…,” Mr. Garneau said in a letter to the railways dated June 12.

Transport Canada said it is reviewing the TSB report and will respond in the required 90 days.

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Patrick Waldron, a CN spokesman, said the carrier looked at operations in all its yards after the incident and made changes where appropriate, including greater use of brakes on cars.

In the 2016 incident, one CN conductor was controlling the train with a remote device, known as a beltpack, at the bowl-shaped MacMillan yard just north of Toronto. Using the beltpack, the employee moved the train beyond the yard limits and partly onto downward sloping tracks that led to the mainline before attempting to drive it back into the yard. But the crew did not apply the air brakes on the rail cars. And the locomotive brakes alone were not powerful enough to hold the 9,000-tonne train, which began to roll away at an increasing speed, said Rob Johnston, a TSB manager of rail investigations.

The crew – a foreman and a helper – were both qualified conductors but were inexperienced in that part of the yard, the TSB said in its report. The foreman, normally assigned as a helper, was filling in for a vacationing co-worker.

The TSB report said since the government set the railway qualification standards in 1987, crews have become smaller, beltpacks have become widely used, training programs have been accelerated and the use of managers to run trains has become more common.

“Here is the problem in a nutshell: Although the crew was qualified according to the regulations that govern employee qualification standards, those regulations do not cover the way work is carried out today. That’s because in the 30 years since those regulations were issued, work has evolved,” Ms. Ackermans said.

She noted beltpacks are an efficient way to assemble and control trains in yards, but also allow railways to use conductors instead of more qualified and experienced engineers. “Yet [an engineer] is the only person who is required to have recurrent training on locomotive operation and train handling, during which they are taught how to anticipate and negotiate changes in terrain.”

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