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Outdated technology and poor training and supervision caused the 2005 CN derailment that spilled 40,000 litres of caustic soda into the Cheakamus River north of Squamish says a Transportation Safety Board report released yesterday.

More than half a million fish and other wildlife were wiped out within 12 hours along an 18-kilometre stretch of the river after nine cars derailed on the Cheakamus Canyon rail bridge. At the time, the three-kilometre-long train was negotiating 18 curves along a steep uphill stretch of the line.

The report said the train was comprised of seven locomotive engines, including two in the middle, and 144 cars, most of which were empty. But the two middle - or "remote" - locomotives shut down 11 to 13 minutes after leaving North Vancouver, because they were incorrectly set up, pulling in the wrong direction.

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Non-specific alarms did sound, but they did not notify the crew of the severity of the danger and eventually switched off automatically. As a result, once the train reached the steeper inclines and curving track sections between Squamish and Whistler, it no longer had the power needed to pull the cars, and the train almost stalled. The engine driver overcompensated by increasing power in the forward engines, which was too strong for the length of train, causing the accident.

As well, the leading engine at the head of the train was of an older technology and could not "communicate" adequately with the other locomotives.

Had the second engine been switched to lead, the report said, it would have known via its computer links with the remote engines that they were not in operation.

At a news conference, George Fowler, the safety board's lead investigator into the accident, called it a "classic stringline derailment," adding that the alarms mentioned could go off for 584 different faults to indicate a problem.

"Following CN's acquisition of BC Rail in 2004, operational staff reductions and retirements resulted in a loss of appropriate operational knowledge and experience," said Mr. Fowler, adding that CN failed to utilize the knowledge already in place. "A lack of training and proper supervision contributed to [the derailment]"

Wendy Tadros, the chairperson of the TSB, said that while the purpose of the report was not to apportion blame, she was pleased with the initial response from CN and the federal Department of Transportation, which immediately cut the length of such freight trains travelling the route.

"When action is taken early on, this is the best-case scenario," she said. "The system is made safer right away and we do not have to make [these]recommendations in our final report."

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She added that the safety board remained concerned that the defences were not adequate because the best technology available had not been used. The TSB would also like to see the design of alarms changed to "clearly identify the nature of faults."

CN spokesman Jim Feeney said the rail company could not comment on the specifics of the report because of current or potential legal action due to the incident.

"We're still reviewing the report and at this point we are fairly circumscribed in what we can say. We believe CN had, and continues to have, appropriate train-handling policies and operating procedures in place," he said.

Fiona MacLeod of Transport Canada said the Railway Safety Act was currently under review and added that investigators had visited the accident site.

B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner said his department was still investigating the accident and the environmental fallout, in conjunction with Environment Canada, and would release a report at a future date.

Others were quicker with their opinions.

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John Buchanan is a Squamish resident and former BC Rail car man who was once part of a team responsible for the safety inspection of all inbound and outbound trains at the Squamish depot. He left his job of 21 years after CN took over the company in 2004.

"That [job]disappeared. They don't do those inspections any more since the CN takeover," he said, adding that the report's contents didn't surprise him. He received his own copy of the report from the TSB and spoke to investigators following the press conference.

"One thing I thought was lacking in the report is that there was no bad-order history of the cars that were involved in the derailment. Each car has a history, a maintenance record of defects when things go wrong with the car and it is pulled into the shops.

"It would have been nice to see at least wheel-gauge readings and the condition of the track. They felt that that wasn't part of the cause of the accident ... but it is as important to know the wheel conditions."

Mr. Buchanan added that he could see a point where CN would end the freight route through Squamish.

"When CN bought BC Rail, one of the things in that agreement was that after five years CN no longer had to do any operations on this line. They already have a north-south haul going through the Fraser Canyon. They were never interested in our north-south haul because of the Cheakamus Canyon and the difficulties in operating through there.

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"And that was before all this. Mark my words, after the five years is up in a year or two, you won't be seeing freight coming up and down this line."

*****

Derailment timeline

Aug. 4, 2005, afternoon: The remote locomotives - two engines placed two-thirds of the way down the three-kilometre-long train to assist in pulling it up the steep incline ahead - are improperly set up prior to the start of the journey in North Vancouver.

Aug. 5, 2005, early morning: The train leaves North Vancouver for Squamish. The remote locomotives shut down in a "protective mode" within 14 minutes of leaving North Vancouver. An alarm goes off, but is not considered a problem by the crew.

6:24 a.m.: Train leaves Squamish for Prince George with a crew of two - a locomotive engineer and a conductor. This crew joined the train in Squamish but are not notified of the alarm going off by the previous crew.

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6:45 a.m.: Suspicious over a lack of power as the incline into the local mountains increases, the engineer decides to test remote locomotives to determine whether they are working. By this point, the train has slowed to 8½ mph. The engineer decides to bring another locomotive in the front online, adding 4,400 HP to the pull of the train at the front.

6:49 a.m.: The train has accelerated to a top speed of 34 mph.

6:58 a.m.: The train has slowed to 22.7 mph in order to keep within the speed restrictions for a steeper hill grade.

6:59 a.m.: The train experiences its first wheel slips through heavy mountain grades and a series of curves in the track.

7:15 a.m.: The train experiences a nine-car, string-line derailment at the Cheakamus River Bridge, spilling 40,000 litres of caustic soda into the river.

After 2 p.m.: First Transportation Safety Board investigators arrive on the scene.

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Cathryn Atkinson

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