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British Columbia Western newsletter: Another derailment puts handbrakes in the spotlight again

Hello. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.

Just over a year ago, an emotional train engineer apologized to the people of Lac Mégantic for his role in the 2013 tragedy that claimed 47 lives when a runaway train laden with oil barrelled into town, derailed and exploded. Thomas Harding was acquitted, along with two others, of criminal negligence in the accident. He had been accused of not applying sufficient handbrakes before leaving for the night.

The role of handbrakes – or lack of them – is once again in the spotlight in the wake of three more deaths, the result of another horrific derailment of a runaway freight train, this one plunging 60 metres after speeding through a treacherous mountain pass.

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In this case, though, the handbrakes were never required. They will be from now on.

Two days after the Monday crash, transportation reporter Eric Atkins reported that Canadian Pacific had changed its operating rules. Trains that make emergency stops on mountain routes will now require the use of handbrakes.

On Friday, the federal Transport Department issued a statement saying that until the cause of the accident is determined, handbrakes will be mandatory on trains stopped on a mountain grade after air brakes are used in an emergency. The order took effect immediately.

Eric reported that Train 301 was composed of three locomotives and 112 grain cars, but it was brought to an emergency stop descending a mountain route just outside the Spiral Tunnels because it had exceeded the 15-mile-an-hour speed limit by five mph, according to a railway industry source. The crew made adjustments to the air brakes on three quarters of the cars, as CP’s operating rules require.

Eric reported that according to CP’s operating rules dated from 2006, obtained by The Globe, “weather and poor braking conditions” dictated if handbrakes were to be set on every car.

Eric explained handbrakes, used when cars are stopped, require a crew member to manually turn a hand wheel on each car, a physically demanding task, especially with dozens of cars and in cold weather.

Reporter Justin Giovannetti, who also covered the Lac Mégantic tragedy, noted the performance of the train’s air brakes will likely form the central part of the accident inquiry.

He wrote that while air brakes have been used on trains for more than a century-and-a-half with few changes, there are drawbacks to the technology. Cold weather and long stops can affect their performance.

This week’s incident killed engineer Andy Dockrell, conductor Dylan Paradis and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer. All were said by family and friends to have loved their jobs. A funeral for Waldenberger-Bulmer is to be held in Grande Prairie on Saturday, Mr. Paradis’s ceremony is scheduled for Monday.

The Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation, which is expected to take months or more.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West:

VANCOUVER ART GALLERY: Curators, technicians and other staff at the Vancouver Art Gallery are on strike in a fight over wages, which comes at a delicate time for the institution as it seeks funding to build a new museum. More than 200 workers are off the job during the coldest week of the year, carrying signs such as “Modern Art/Ancient Wages” and “Waging Warhol Against Low Wages.” Vancouver arts correspondent Marsha Lederman looks at what the strike could mean for the gallery’s search for a new home.

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PIPELINE CONVOY: A convoy of trucks departs from Alberta this week as part of a growing movement to rally behind the province’s energy sector. But the convoy has been overshadowed by the presence of self-described yellow vest protesters, whose focus on issues such as immigration have fuelled concerns about extremism. James Keller looks at how the yellow vest movement has prompted condemnations from politicians and a split among rally organizers.

URBAN FARM: Canada’s largest urban farm has reached a last-minute agreement with the Alberta government for a new patch of land. Grow Calgary’s previous lease expired earlier this week, and it did not appear that it would find a new home after an increasingly acrimonious dispute with the province. Grow Calgary founder Paul Hughes said he was suspicious with the province’s claim that it needs the current site for road construction, and the province’s transportation minister derided Mr. Hughes as a “squatter.” The agreement in principle will allow the farm, which supplies organic produce during the growing season to shelters for women and the homeless in Calgary, to move to a site alongside the city’s ring road.

OIL SPILL CHARGES: The owners of a bulk carrier that spilled 2,700 litres of fuel oil into Vancouver’s English Bay have been acquitted of all charges. The owners of the MV Marathassa were charged after the spill in 2015 fouled beaches and prompted an expensive cleanup operation. But a B.C. judge has concluded the vessel’s owners had exercised due diligence.

CALGARY SKI JUMPS: Three of Calgary’s four ski jumps are set to close, becoming the latest winter sports venues to suffer following the failure of the city’s 2026 Olympic bid. The ski jumps at Canada Olympic Park, the sliding centre and several other venues would have benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in funding if the city won its Olympic bid. But Winsport, the non-profit that oversees COP, says it is millions of dollars short of what it would need to keep some of those facilities running.

ICBC: British Columbia’s publicly owned insurance corporation continues to bleed money, posting a net loss of $860-million. The Insurance Corp. of B.C. has been facing a financial crisis driven in part by an increase in claims that have outpaced premium increases. Last year, Attorney-General David Eby described the state of the Crown corporation as “a financial dumpster fire" and announced dramatic changes to rein in costs, including caps on payouts for minor injuries, increased premiums for high-risk drivers and tighter controls on auto-body repairs.

Opinion:

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Adrienne Tanner on opposition to a Vancouver detox facility: “When we ask residents in any neighbourhood to accept an institutional building with the potential to disrupt traffic, views and the neighbourhood mix for the city’s greater good, we need to go the extra mile to address their concerns.”

Elizabeth Beale, Don Drummond and Glen Hodgson on the carbon tax debate: “Andrew Scheer is right to object to any exemptions, both for economic and political reasons. But he is wrong that protecting business competitiveness is akin to an exemption.”

Simon Dyer, Christopher Ragan and Blake Shaffer on the Supreme Court of Canada’s orphan wells decision: “The decision reinforces the polluter-pay principle, which is reassuring for Canadian regulators and taxpayers. However, it doesn’t resolve the challenges posed by insolvent operators. “

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