VIA Rail has begun running buffer cars on some of its aging passenger trains, a safety measure designed to better protect passengers and crew in the event of a crash.
Canada’s government-owned passenger train system is using the empty cars, which act as crumple zones, on trains that include the stainless steel coaches, which were built in the 1950s. VIA said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail it is taking the steps on the advice of a third-party engineering report while addressing the structural weaknesses of the cars.
“The corporation has added buffer cars at the front and back end of all trains with stainless steel equipment to reduce the consequences in the unlikely event of a train-to-train collision,” VIA said in the e-mail.
A ministerial order requiring VIA to employ the safety measures was issued on Wednesday and will be made public on Thursday, even though VIA has already taken the steps, said Nadine Ramadan, press secretary for Omar Alghabra, the Transport Minister.
Bruce Snow, a Unifor executive representing railway employees, said the safety measures are temporary, and will be in place until the old cars are reinforced or replaced by the new Siemens trainsets that began being delivered this year. “In the event of a catastrophic disaster these cars would absorb any impact,” said Mr. Snow, who represents 2,000 VIA maintenance and on-board staff. The older fleet should have been replaced long ago, Mr. Snow said by phone. “It’s a wakeup call for the government.”
Greg Gormick, a railway consultant who has worked with VIA in the past, said the need for buffer cars highlights a lack of government spending on the rail system. “It’s a story that has been going on for decades,” Mr. Gormick said.
The steel cars being reinforced are part of a $200-million upgrade program that includes strengthening the aging chassis to better withstand collisions.
Due to the presence of the extra cars, VIA has notified passengers on some routes they can no longer transport their pets because the animals will be inaccessible in the baggage car, which is separated from the passenger car by the buffer car. Also, some food and drink service will cease, as will use of the dome cars on some trips.
“Due to temporary operational adjustments, our trains are undergoing a reconfiguration, which will have an impact on your trip,” VIA said in a note to customers, without mentioning the buffer cars. “Baggage cars will not be accessible during travel, therefore we will be unable to welcome pets on our baggage cars, and you should remember to carry all your essential items, like medication, on your person or in your carry-on baggage.”
Mr. Alghabra says he is in discussions with VIA to improve safety measures on some of its aging passenger trains.
VIA did not address questions on which routes would have buffer cars, nor why some onboard services are being withdrawn. In the e-mail, VIA said it has set up a technical task force of current and former VIA employees and representatives of Hatch, the engineering company that authored the safety report. “VIA Rail has shared its plan and is in regular contact with the Canadian rail safety regulator, and we have already begun rolling out our plan,” VIA said.
Collisions involving passenger trains are rare, but one of the most notable crashes occurred in 1986 near Hinton, Alta. A Canadian National Railway freight train failed to stop when required and collided head on with a VIA passenger train, killing 23 people, a public inquiry found.