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Patrick Robinson of Cornwall, Ont.

When he wasn't with them, Patrick Robinson made sure he phoned his two children at suppertime every day. So his relatives in eastern Ontario feared something was wrong Sunday when there was no call from the rookie Via Rail employee.

They tried his cellphone without success. Hours ticked by while on the news there were reports of an afternoon train accident in Burlington, west of Toronto.

"He wasn't the type of guy to let his parents wait and worry. … At six o'clock he hadn't called his kids to wish them good night," said a cousin, Ted Stang. "Then the police showed up."

Mr. Robinson, 40, a Cornwall resident, was one of three men who died Sunday after the passenger train they were operating derailed. The other two were Ken Simmonds, 56, and Peter Snarr, 52, both of Toronto.

All were devoted railwaymen with familial ties to the industry: Mr. Robinson and Mr. Snarr were the sons of railway employees; Mr. Simmonds's brother, Bill, is also an engineer. Mr. Snarr, like his younger colleague, was a single father of two.

The Toronto-bound train had travelled less than two kilometres from Aldershot station on Sunday when it changed tracks by entering a remotely controlled crossover switch. It was there that it derailed. The locomotive engine at the front was destroyed as it turned on its side and slammed into a building.

Data that could help explain the crash – such as the speed of the train and whether the brakes were applied – have not yet been gathered from its black box, which had been extracted from the wreckage but only partially downloaded as of midday Monday.

It's also unknown which of the three men was driving at the time, but all had many years experience on the rails.

Before landing the job with Via, Mr. Robinson conducted freight trains for Ottawa Central Railway, a subsidiary of Canadian National Railway, his cousin said. He was onboard the locomotive Sunday as a trainee, to observe the other men.

The son of a CN track repairman, Mr. Robinson had long dreamed of working for the national passenger service, which promised better pay and more prestige than hauling commodities. There were many tests and interviews and a wait until last fall for an opening.

"He was so happy to have gotten that job, he had taken so many interviews," said a friend, Nancy Brisson.

Since separating from his ex-wife, Gail, Mr. Robinson had custody of his children one of every two weeks. The new job meant living in Toronto and only seeing his kids on weekends, which was tough on him. Mr. Robinson came from a large Franco-Ontarian family, one of 22 cousins who grew up around Hawkesbury and Cornwall.

The other two men had also worked with CN before joining Via Rail.

Mr. Snarr, whose father held a job in the railroad's sales department, developed a love of the industry from an early age, his older brother, Alan, recalled.

"He liked to play with trains. He was interested in that type of thing," he said.

He started his career as a brakeman in a freight yard north of Toronto and became an engineer in May, 1978. Over the years he drove freight and GO commuter trains before working for Via.

Mr. Snarr was the father of two grown daughters, whom he took skiing and on long holidays, including a train trip across Western Canada. Facebook photographs show the trio exploring the Rocky Mountains and visiting the Badlands of Alberta.

He loved the outdoors, and enjoyed hiking and spending time at a cottage on Lake Couchiching in Orillia, Ont., friends and acquaintances said. They remembered Mr. Snarr as a man who was always in a good mood and liked to talk about his children.

"He was an amazing father, had a great sense of humour, and always smiling," said Janette Woodley.

Suzy Sheppey, who met Mr. Snarr a few years ago while hiking, described him as a "kind-hearted guy" and a "great dad."

Mr. Simmonds's colleagues remembered him as a laidback but meticulous worker. Retired engineer Daniel Christie, who worked with him in the early 1980s at GO, said he was a great partner to have in the locomotive.

"He was just a hell of a nice guy, quiet and easygoing," Mr. Christie said. "If you had to spend 11 hours in the cab of a GO train, you wanted to spend it with somebody like Ken Simmonds. He was fully professional; he wasn't going to annoy you or talk your ear off."

David Filman said Mr. Simmonds, an engineer since 1979, had also worked on freight trains and in the yard during his career. He came to Via in 2007.

"He was a wonderful person," said Mr. Filman, who also worked with him at GO. "He was very conscientious on the job – he was the kind of guy who crossed the t's and dotted the i's."

With a report from James Bradshaw