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A Call For Change: CP Derailment Claims Three Lives

by on February 21, 2019


It’s amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in Canada, and some of the most challenging terrain for railways anywhere in North America.

Not far from Craigellachie where the last spike was driven in 1885, completing the CPR railway, tying the country together is the town of Field, BC, and CP Rail’s nearby Partridge Station. 

Three kilometres west of the railway station are a pair of looped railway tunnels, built 110 years ago to help the trains through the treacherously steep Kicking Horse Pass. The area has one of the highest (2.2%) rail slopes on the continent.

The tunnels are a marvel of construction and engineering, even by today’s standards. It is one of the most impressive, beautiful, but challenging lengths of railway infrastructure that I have ever seen firsthand.

Three Lives Lost

It is also now the scene of a devastating derailment involving a CP Rail train with 112 railcars loaded with grain products, three locomotives, but, most tragically, three CP Rail crew members, who lost their lives, including a seasoned engineer with over 20 years of experience, a conductor, and a trainee conductor, the latter who now leaves behind a twin brother, who also works as a railroader.

It’s the 48th CP derailment between Field, British Columbia, and Calgary, Alberta, since 2009, a figure, already too high, worsened by the mounting toll of fatalities, with there now being eight workplace deaths in a little over a year.

Change is Needed

“The government and the rail industry will have to recognize that something is wrong and change is needed,” said Lyndon Isaak, President of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference. (TCRC)

I believe he is right.

Union spokesperson Greg Edwards, in speaking about the recent tragedy, said that “Everybody I’ve spoken with both within the company and within the union is just devastated by this.”

Runaway Train

On February 4th, CP train no.#301, enroute from Red Deer, Alberta, to Vancouver, B.C. had been parked on a grade at the Partridge Station for two hours, during a mandatory shift change, up from the Spiral Tunnels.

The new crew taking over the train had not yet been given instructions to depart when the train began to move on its own, increasing speed as it travelled down towards the tunnels for the next three kilometres.

Then, on a curve before a bridge that would have taken the train through a 891 metre long lower tunnel, the train derailed, falling more than 60 metres below, taking with it the crew, and all but 13 railcars and a single locomotive.

“It was not anything the crew did,” said James Carmichael, a Transportation Safety Board Senior Investigator, who explained that investigators were referring to the derailment as “a loss of control” meaning that crew members could no longer maintain the designated track speed.

CP Employee Speaks Out

A CP employee who requested anonymity, and whom I personally think summed up the entire tragedy best, said that the final radio dispatch from the train as it barrelled towards the Upper Spiral Tunnel indicated that it was moving at 75 km/h, more than twice the prescribed 32 km/h designated for that specific section of track.

“That is one of the steepest grades on CP, coming down from the top of that hill. There’s actually instruction in our timetable about how to come down that hill, like where you should be setting the brakes, here and here. It’s very specific and if you do one wrong move, you’re done for.’

The CP member similarly noted that protocol dictates that an emergency brake be applied if a train reaches five km/h over the limit, suggesting that cold weather or mechanical failure may have factored into the tragedy.

The same employee made a moving plea to to public to remember that, beyond any possible environmental impacts, that lives have been lost. “At the end of the day, the human aspect of it is far greater than anything else right now. There’s three people not coming home to their families. Everybody thinks that freight trains are like Skytrain, (a reference to a light rail transit system in Vancouver) like there’s nobody on it, and it’s push a button and go, but there’s a human side to that.’

And it was after reading this plea for both understanding and compassion, and after realization as to the magnitude of this incident, and its far-reaching effects, that I have felt compelled to write once again.

CP CEO Speaks About Loss

CP President and CEO Keith Creel said that “this is a tragedy that will have a long-lasting impact on our family of railroaders.” and that he hadn’t stopped thinking about it since it occurred.

Eerie Comparisons to Lac Megantic

To Garland Chow, a professor with UBC’s Sauder School of Business, this most recent derailment sounds “eerily similar” to the 2013 Lac Megantic rail disaster in Quebec, in that both incidents involved a runaway freight train rolling down a grade.

These were exactly my thoughts as well, after reading the initial accounts of this most recent disaster. Another long, heavy train parked on a slope. Another possible handbrake issue and, in this case, possible mechanical challenges by brutally cold winter weather, (it was already -20 Celsius) combined with some of the toughest sections of railroad found anywhere in North America directly downhill from where the train was stopped.

With all these factors present, particularly given the tough terrain, is it not time to re-evaluate where to stop trains and conduct shift changes? 

Chow however, noted that one of the differences between the two incidents was that there was no one on board when the Lac Megantic train derailed, killing 47 people. In that incident, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) concluded that not enough handbrakes had been applied.

In this most recent case, despite everything that was learned by the Lac Megantic derailment, handbrakes were neither applied nor even required.

Chow noted that the TSB had already determined that the crew of the BC train were not responsible for the derailment, and would have tried to stop it, (truly a nightmarish scenario) possibly indicating air brake failure.

Chow speculated that the difference between Lac Megantic, and the current rail disaster in BC was the the first was a failure of process, while the latter may well be a failure of equipment. While it may be currently still speculation, I do think Chow has made his  point clearly.

A further key distinction is that the Lac Megantic train had been carrying crude, whereas the BC train was carrying grain products; the “what ifs” being unfathomable had the latter also carried crude instead of grain.

CP Details Winter Mechanical Challenges

On CP Rail’s website, a document titled “White Paper: Railroading in the Canadian Winter” notes the following: “Harsh winter conditions are an inescapable reality in Canada’s northern climate…Winter has a profound impact on a railway’s operations and its ability to maintain service for its customers.”

It further notes that cold increases air leakage from a train’s air brake system that results in varying air pressures between the head and tail end of the train. The report also says that it places locomotives at different points along the train in the winter, thereby distributing power to make it quicker to pressurize air brakes. 

The CP train that derailed on February 4th had a locomotive at the front, middle, and end.

Train speeds, it noted, must also be reduced in cold weather, by at least 16km/h below -25C, and at least by 32km/h at -35C.

Why then, was this train left on a slope whereby, if anything went wrong, as it did in this case, a runaway train could rapidly pick up speed to disastrous effect, as this one did?

CP further notes that trains are shortened when temperatures dip below -25C to ensure pressure remains consistent throughout the entire length of the train. The train in question was accordingly shortened down to 112 cars from 135 cars, as the ambient temperature that night was already close to -25C.

Train Length and Terrain?

What is not indicated is if this policy to reduce train length in severe cold weather is simply a generalized measure based solely on temperature, not terrain. Surely, this is a significant issue.

If this train was loaded with grain and moving across flat, open prairies, that is one thing. But a high, snowy mountain pass with a steep grade with looped tunnels constructed over a century ago?

Boston-based engineer, Joe Mulligan, with Railroad Workers United, a volunteer group of rank and file railroaders across North America has stepped forward to say that even 112 cars is large for a train full of heavy grain hoppers.

“Our forefathers in the business would never have put a train together that big under those climatic conditions and expected it to run smoothly.” It would have taken an awful lot of handbrakes to hold a train that big.”

It’s time to listen to experienced railroaders like Mulligan and open a debate about train length as it pertains to safety, rather than shareholder’s interests.

A review and study of train length, particularly in circumstances and conditions such as were present in the early hours of February 4th, is long overdue.

Mulligan noted that nothing could be done to stop a train of that size once it was in motion. What a dreadful scenario for the crew.

Federal Minister Catches Up

On Friday, February 8th, Transport Minister Marc Garneau ordered the use of handbrakes on all trains stopped on mountain slopes in the wake of CP’s deadly derailment in the Rocky Mountains.

Garneau called the order, made under the Railway Safety Act, a “precaution” until the cause of the derailment is determined.

“As I have said before, rail safety is my top priority and I will never hesitate to take appropriate actions when necessary.”

Personally, such “actions” and “precautions” have been necessary long before this most recent tragedy unfolded, given the sheer number of derailments in the area.

It’s astounding, particularly after Lac Megantic that handbrakes are still even an issue along with long, heavy trains being left on slopes, given what is known of the mechanical challenges that railways are confronted with in frigid winter conditions.

I am sorry, but I have little confidence in the current federal government that governs by empty platitudes, vacuous virtue-signalling, and acting in hindsight.

A Tragedy for All

So what has all this got to do with this blog? One word: community. We need rail practices including the use of handbrakes, train length and terrain, and designated areas to stop trains for extended periods fully reviewed for the safety of both railway personnel and the communities they serve.

Any such review should include, and welcome, the input and expertise of the railroaders with firsthand knowledge of the problems – and possible solutions – that the industry faces.

Fix the problems. It is owed to the three men who are never coming home again.



“A major challenge: Railway in BC derailment details harsh weather challenges” – CTV News, February 8th, 2019

“Transport Canada orders use of handbrakes for trains on steep slopes” – CBC, February 8, 2019

CTV News, and CTV News online, February 8, 2019

“CP Rail train was going more than twice speed limit before it derailed, killing three crew” – National Post, February 4, 2019

“It was not anything the crew did: TSB says derailed CP train that killed three began to move on its own” – National Post, February 5, 2019

Photo Credit: Jeff McIntosh, Canadian Press/CTV News


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