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A Canadian Pacific Railway freight train is pictured in this handout photo. A CP freight train operated by a manager collided with another train in southern B.C. in March, the second such incident that has come to light in the past four months. (Handout)
A Canadian Pacific Railway freight train is pictured in this handout photo. A CP freight train operated by a manager collided with another train in southern B.C. in March, the second such incident that has come to light in the past four months. (Handout)

CP draws fire for using managers to operate trains following collision in B.C. Add to ...

A Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. freight train operated by a manager collided with another train in southern B.C., the second such incident that has come to light in the past four months.

CP’s use of managers to run trains has raised alarms at Canada’s rail-safety investigator, the Transportation Safety Board, which has said that railway managers are not as well trained and have less experience and track familiarity than do unionized crew members.

Using managers to run locomotives increases the “risk for unsafe train operations,” the TSB said in 2016 in an investigation into another incident involving a manager-driven CP train.

The latest collision happened in the southern B.C. town of Yahk at 4:15 a.m. on March 6. A manager drove a 97-car train westbound onto unauthorized track and was unable to stop before hitting an eastbound train, which was diverting into a side track, according to the TSB and CP. There were no injuries or dangerous goods involved, but one hopper car was knocked off the rails in the low-speed collision.

“It was a main-track collision,” said James Carmichael, a senior investigator with the TSB in Calgary.

“The westbound train came all the way past that east siding switch without permission,” said one person familiar with the incident who asked not be identified. “That’s not a minor mistake.”

A CP spokesman said the crew consisted of two experienced railroaders, one manager and one unionized employee, operating the train. “The incident is still under investigation,” Martin Cej said.

In 2015, there were four main-track collisions for all rail companies, accounting for 0.3 per cent of rail accidents, according to TSB data. In 2016, there were five, which is also the five-year average.

In December, a CP train operated by managers failed to stop at a signal near North Bend, B.C., and hit the tail-end of a CP train stopped for a crew change. There were no injuries or derailments.

To guard against labour shortages and work stoppages, CP encourages non-union employees – managers and office staff – to become qualified engineers or conductors. CP says becoming certified as a train operator is vital to understanding the business and a “fundamental cornerstone to the development of our railway culture.”

The company, which says it is North America’s safest major railway, says managers run a small number of trains, and only when there are unforeseen spikes in customer demand or system disruptions. All train operators are qualified, CP says. But the use of managers to run trains has drawn the anger of the engineers and conductors union.

Canada’s other large freight hauler, Canadian National Railway Co., says its managers do not regularly operate trains.

Mark Winfield, a professor at Toronto’s York University who researches public safety regimes, said in most cases railway managers and office staff lack the training, experience and apprenticeship needed to learn the skills need to operate long, heavy trains. Train crews need to be familiar with not just the locomotive controls, but the grades, switches, signals and curves through which they operate.

“It’s a very skilled trade,” said Prof. Winfield, who has published research on Canada’s rail safety regime in the wake of the Lac-Megantic, Que., oil train explosion that killed 47 people in 2013. “This is not the kind of job where you can just stick someone from a desk job into it. It’s the whole operating environment of what you’re dealing with.”

“What you don’t want is for something to go seriously wrong,” Prof. Winfield said by phone. “It comes down to Transport Canada at the end of the day. They’re the ones with the power to set the rules.”

In response to questions about managers running trains, Transport Canada recently told The Globe it “monitors companies for compliance with the regulations and takes appropriate action, as needed.”

In 2015, a CP train operated near Cranbrook, B.C., by three managers travelled eight kilometres on unauthorized track before being ordered to stop. Two were experienced railroaders before becoming managers but no one in the cab was familiar with the route, the TSB said in its report on the incident.

“With shorter training periods, fewer on-the-job training trips, and fewer prerequisites prior to starting training, it may be difficult for management employees to acquire the necessary knowledge and experience to become fully proficient with operating trains,” said the TSB, whose mandate includes identifying safety lapses.

Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the union that represents about 3,000 locomotive engineers and conductors, says CP’s use of managers on the tracks is a violation of the collective agreement and the Canada Labour Code. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) and labour arbitrators have generally agreed.

The CIRB in 2015 told CP to stop replacing unionized crew members with managers-in-training, and to stop using union members to train managers because the practices violate the Canada Labour Code.

Last week, both sides went before the CIRB again for hearings on the matter before adjourning to talk about a settlement.

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