Canada’s rail safety investigator says Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. CP-T failed to act on repeated employee reports of braking problems on a steep stretch of mountain track in British Columbia, where a 2019 crash killed three train crew members.
The Transportation Safety Board, in a report on the derailment it released on Thursday, urges the federal government to toughen the rules for trains that operate on mountainous routes, and calls for improved braking systems on rail cars.
At a news conference in Calgary on Thursday, Kathy Fox, chair of the TSB, said investigators found CP train crews had on several previous occasions alerted CP management to problems with speed control when descending the set of tracks, known as Field Hill, in cold weather.
“There were recurring reports on poor braking performance descending Field Hill over a number of years,” Ms. Fox told reporters. The safety reports to CP “were being closed without any effective action being taken after the event.”
“It was a known issue, but there wasn’t sufficient action taken,” Ms. Fox said.
The 112-car grain train, known as CP Train 301, sped out of control and derailed on Feb. 4, 2019. Engineer Andrew Dockrell, conductor Dylan Paradis and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer died in the crash.
Mr. Dockrell had experienced braking problems on the same stretch of track the previous day, Ms. Fox told reporters. The hazard report he had intended to file with management was found in the wreckage. “He never had the opportunity to submit it,” Ms. Fox said.
The TSB does not assign blame or liability. Its investigations and reports are intended to raise awareness of safety concerns in Canada’s railway, marine, aviation and pipeline systems. Its recommendations carry no legal weight, but the government must respond to them within 90 days. Companies named by the TSB are not legally required to respond.
The TSB’s report was accompanied by three recommendations to Transport Canada: that CP be required to show its safety management system can identify and mitigate unsafe conditions, that the government establish better tests and standards for brakes on freight cars that operate on steep grades in cold weather, and that railways be required to install automatic parking brakes on freight cars.
Ms. Fox said automatic brakes have been available for 10 years and that they would replace handbrakes, which are slow and difficult to apply. But she said she was not aware of another country or company that had adopted automatic brakes.
Transport Canada spokesperson Sau Sau Liu said the government is reviewing the recommendations and that it “plans to build on several important safety measures that the department has already put in place immediately following the derailment.”
CP issued a statement in which it accused the TSB of misrepresenting the facts of the crash.
“CP’s safety hazard reporting procedure was effective, both in form and in execution. There were no systemic hazards that were not appropriately addressed, including Field Hill train braking performance, by CP’s safety management system,” the statement said. “This is a tragedy that will never be forgotten and one which has strengthened CP’s unwavering commitment to safety across its entire operation.”
In 2020, the RCMP opened a criminal investigation into the crash.
The TSB’s investigators have said no handbrakes were set on the train. Instead it was being held in place by air brakes, which are known to be leaky and unreliable in cold and snowy conditions.
Shorty after the derailment, Transport Canada ordered that handbrakes be applied to trains during emergency stops on grades steeper than 1.8 per cent.
Insufficient braking power was a contributor to the 2013 disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., where an unattended, runaway oil train crashed and set part of the town ablaze, killing 47 people.
Field Hill is part of CP’s main line, which connects Calgary with Vancouver. It is a famously difficult route for train crews, with sharp curves and steep descents.
About three hours before the crash, the train had made an emergency stop, because of braking problems, east of a twisting section of track known as the Spiral Tunnels. Mr. Dockrell and his crew boarded to begin their shifts shortly after midnight, when the train began to roll away on its own. Within three minutes, the train reached 85 kilometres an hour and derailed on a steep curve. It plunged into the Kicking Horse River, more than 60 metres below.
“The train started to move and it started to accelerate quickly,” said Dan Holbrook, the TSB’s manager of western rail operations. “This all came upon them very quickly.”
As the train descended, Mr. Dockrell got on the radio to alert employees at a station at the bottom of the hill. He told them to evacuate the building and bunkhouse. His plan was to let the train slow itself down on the curve, but its speed was too great.
“They were certainly aware of what was going on,” Ms. Fox said. “They were hoping the train would stall out in the tunnel.”
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