Skip to main content

Crews work in the area of the derailed tanker cars in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013. The train derailment and subsequent fires and explosions destroyed much of the downtown area of the picturesque Quebec town.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

Canada's second-largest rail firm is tightening its policies on leaving trains unattended, saying it believes Transport Canada is about to issue new safety rules after a catastrophic derailment on another company's line killed about 50 people in Lac-Mégantic, Que., earlier this month.

Canadian Pacific issued an internal bulletin last Friday announcing changes to its operating instructions to comply with a "pending order" on rail safety from Transport Canada. The company bulletin suggests federal regulators are preparing to introduce the first substantial reforms to the rail industry since the disaster occurred.

The bulletin, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, lists four specific changes the company expects Transport Canada to introduce, including a prohibition against parking dangerous goods on a main track and a requirement for all rail companies to use hand brakes on trains that are left unsupervised for more than an hour.

"With the recent tragic incident that occurred in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, in preparation to a pending order by Transport Canada, Canadian Pacific is revising our operating instructions," the July 12 bulletin says.

Investigators in Lac-Mégantic are still working to understand a sequence of events that led an unoccupied Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train to begin rolling toward the small town early in the morning on July 6. The train picked up speed on a downhill grade and jumped the track shortly after 1 a.m., sending 72 tankers of crude oil into the downtown core and setting off a series of explosions that flattened 40 buildings.

A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Wednesday that the department is committed to working with the industry to study rail safety but refused to comment on the bulletin's reference to a pending government order. "If new ministerial orders are issued to rail operators, an announcement will be made at that time," Ashley Kelahear wrote in an e-mail.

A Canadian Pacific spokesman said the company has not officially been advised of any changes to federal regulations, despite the language in the bulletin saying the company was preparing for new Transport Canada rules. "We have simply implemented further enhancements to our safety and operating rules," Ed Greenberg said.

Reached by phone on Wednesday evening, MM&A president Robert Grindrod said he could not comment on another company's policies.

The rules listed in the Canadian Pacific bulletin call for engineers to apply engine brakes – in addition to the train's air brakes – when they leave it alone for less than an hour and handbrakes for any period longer than that. Companies will be also be asked to file a copy of their handbrake policy with the department within seven days of the order coming into effect, according to the bulletin.

Investigators in Lac-Mégantic have said they are looking closely at the application of the train's air and handbrakes to determine what role they may have played in the crash. MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt has accused the train's engineer of failing to apply enough handbrakes on the train to ensure it would stay in place, but the Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, says it believes no single factor is to blame.

Other changes include a requirement for staff to lock locomotives whenever they are left unattended and to remove a "reverser" – which acts like a car key for the locomotive – so no one else can move it forward or backward. Canadian Pacific staff previously locked the locomotives in high-risk locations, according to Mr. Greenberg, but the rule change means the policy will now be applied "across the network."

The Canadian Pacific bulletin also includes a rule prohibiting tank cars that are carrying dangerous goods from being left unattended on a main track, as opposed to a siding – which runs parallel to the track – or in a train yard or terminal.

TSB investigators in Lac-Mégantic have said the train was parked on the main tracks rather than the siding before it began rolling downhill toward the town. In most cases, if a train slips from the siding and back onto the main track, a signal will inform track controllers – a safety feature that can help prevent runaway trains. However, TSB investigators have said that would not have occurred in Lac-Mégantic because there are no signals on that portion of the line.

Asked about the Canadian Pacific bulletin on Wednesday, a spokesman for Canadian National said it, too, is reviewing how trains are secured as a result of the Lac-Mégantic crash. But company spokesman Mark Hallman declined to comment on whether any changes have been implemented already or what changes Transport Canada might be considering.

Interact with The Globe