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A Via Rail passenger train makes its way along the tracks in Ottawa on July 11, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Transport Canada has allowed Via Rail to stop using buffer cars on some trains after assessments concluded its 1950s-built passenger coaches meet modern safety standards and pass collision tests.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in October ordered the operator of the national passenger rail system to use empty rail cars behind locomotives and at the end of trains to cushion the impact of possible collisions. The order came after Via found several of the stainless steel coaches made almost 70 years ago by Budd Co. needed repairs due to corrosion and decades of use. Mr. Alghabra also ordered Via to conduct tests on some of the coaches, including simulated collisions and inspections of dismantled cars.

Those tests, conducted over several months at the National Research Council Canada in Ottawa with rail consultancy Hatch, found the passenger cars pass safety standards of the Association of American Railroads and the manufacturer.

“Via has since conducted a series of simulations, testing, and inspections which concluded that the cars showed no additional deficiencies, and the cars are still compliant with structural design standards for crashworthiness,” Stephen Scott, Transport Canada’s director general of rail safety, wrote in a May 18 order that lifted the requirement for further testing and the use of buffer cars.

The railway owns 203 of the stainless steel cars, 71 of which are in the refurbishment program that first detected the possible problems. The fleet is to be retired by 2035. Via hired Hatch to learn if the cars can be operated safely until then.

Mr. Alghabra ordered the inspections and buffer cars after Hatch, which has offices in several countries, said in a report to Via last year that the passenger coaches should be replaced because they will continue to deteriorate. In addition to the use of buffer cars and repair, Hatch recommended that trains slow down at road crossings, where the risk of collisions is greater.

“Use of the temporary mitigations identified above as the only means of operation for the planned remaining life of the fleet is not recommended,” Hatch wrote in the report, a copy of which was obtained by a freedom of information request.

However, the tests concluded that the measures can be dropped, even though repairs and inspections will continue as part of regular maintenance. “The data confirms (as per the final Hatch report this spring) that, despite their advanced age, Via Rail’s ... cars still meet the high safety standards of our industry,” Via said in an e-mail.

Ian Naish, a former director of rail and pipeline investigations at the Transportation Safety Board, said the order to use buffer cars was issued as a precaution before the cars had been tested for rust and the effects of years on the rails.

“That’s fair ball because you don’t know what you have got until you have a good examination,” said Mr. Naish, describing the research as “thorough and defensible.”

“Via and Transport Canada are comfortable with the research findings and it looks like the old but sturdy equipment should survive for the next 12 years without major failures,” he said.

Two cars underwent collision tests, and eight were stripped and examined for cracks, corrosion and other defects.

To test a car’s ability to withstand a collision, the carriage is secured on a test track and subjected to forces while gauges measure the effects. “You basically lock it in on the rails and then you get these big rams that crush it from both ends and you measure the deformation of the car body,” Mr. Naish said.

To pass, a car must resist a certain amount of force.

Via is in the midst of a $200-million program to update 71 Budd cars with new seats, washrooms, lighting and other amenities.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Via Rail’s new passenger cars will replace its old stainless steel coaches. In fact, government approval for the replacements for the stainless steel has yet to be received.

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