Trending that caught Doug’s eye: Canadian rail disasters

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As train derailments go, it was something to see.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2014 (2864 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As train derailments go, it was something to see.

Last Tuesday, a 100-car CN freight train carrying dangerous goods derailed in central Saskatchewan, sending plumes of thick black smoke billowing into the sky and forcing residents of a nearby hamlet to flee.

One day later, the residents of Clair, a small community of 50 people about one kilometre from the crash, and surrounding farms were allowed to return home.

CP Bill Sandford / The Canadian Press files A derailment in Mississauga caused explosions and the release of chlorine gas. More than 250,000 people fled. At the time, it was North America�s largest-ever peacetime evacuation.

CN says 26 cars jumped the track, including six containing hazardous materials, and the spectacular fireball erupted from two cars carrying petroleum products.

 

The publisher of the Wadena News said she’d never seen anything like it in her 13 years in the area. “I’ve seen derailments, but this is a pretty bad one,” Alison Squires told The Canadian Press. “You could see… this huge plume of black smoke.”

What Canadians may not realize is there are hundreds of train collisions, accidents and derailments every year on the nation’s railways. Like the latest incident, most don’t result in injury or death, but they can be alarming.

Last month, the mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., called on Ottawa to do more to ensure his town’s safety after the sixth derailment in about four months. Two trains go through the town each day, pulling 56,000 cars loaded with dangerous goods annually. Sadly, our history is rife with horrific train accidents, including this five-pack of disasters:

 

5) The date: Nov. 10, 1979

The disaster: The Mississauga Evacuation

The details: A derailment doesn’t have to be deadly to be devastating. Just before midnight on Remembrance Day 1979, a 106-car freight train packed with explosive and poisonous chemicals pulled out of the local marshalling yards when, thanks to an overheated bearing, a set of wheels fell off, sparking a derailment near the intersection of Dundas Street and Mavis Road. According to Heritage Mississauga’s website, one of the tanker cars was filled with 90 tonnes of chlorine, while 39 more cars carried butane, propane, toluene, styrene and other highly flammable materials. A witness later recalled seeing a red-hot set of wheels from the train cartwheel 50 feet through the air and crash in her backyard. Several cars filled with propane exploded, sending up a fireball that could be seen 100 kilometres away. Every available bit of firefighting equipment was sent to the blaze. With the possibility of a deadly cloud of chlorine gas spreading throughout suburban Mississauga, more than 250,000 residents were forced to flee in what was North America’s largest peacetime evacuation until hurricane Katrina walloped Louisiana in 2005. Recalled Mayor Hazel McCallion: “If this had happened a half-mile farther down the track — either east or west — we would have seen thousands of people wiped out. It’s a miracle it happened here.” Six days later, residents were allowed to return. Amazingly, no one was reported killed.

 

4) The date: March 12, 1857

The disaster: The Desjardins Canal Derailment

The details: Ten years before we formally became a country, a Great Western Railway passenger train met a grisly end when a broken axle caused it to jump the tracks and crash through the deck of a timber suspension bridge over the frozen canal outside Hamilton. Here’s a gripping historical account from the archives of the Hamilton Public Library: “The chasm, 60 feet deep, over which this bridge was erected, was made by cutting an outlet for the canal through Burlington Heights. At the time of the accident, the water was covered with ice about two feet thick… The engine and tender crushed at once through the ice. The baggage car, striking the corner of the tender in the act of falling, was thrown to one side and fell some 10 yards from the engine … As far as we can yet learn, everyone in the first car was killed; those who were not crushed being drowned by the water, which nearly filled the car.” A Hamilton railway worker later recalled seeing “the steam suddenly stop, and a sort of dust arise. In a second, there was no train to be seen.” Rescuers raced to the scene, but struggled to reach the wounded because snow coated the embankments leading down to the canal. The tragedy killed 59 of the 100 passengers on board and injured at least 18.

 

3) The date: Sept. 1, 1947

The disaster: The Dugald Rail Crash

The details: For Manitobans, Labour Day weekend in 1947 will forever be remembered as the date of the worst rail disaster in Western Canada’s history. According to a 2006 report by Free Press writer Bill Redekop, it was around 9:45 p.m. when the engineer of the Minaki Special, travelling at about 75 miles per hour, missed a signal to pull over and slammed into a transcontinental from Winnipeg, which was parked in Dugald waiting for the oncoming train to pull over onto a siding. As Redekop reported, the crash killed 31 people and injured 85, with two victims being decapitated and many others dying in an inferno that quickly spread to a nearby elevator full of wheat. The glow from the blaze could be seen from downtown Winnipeg, 24 kilometres away. The deaths and injuries were in the Minaki train, composed mainly of old wooden, gaslit passenger cars that burst into flames after toppling from the tracks. The special was carrying cottagers, who had just closed their cabins for the summer, and children returning from camps. With few ambulances available, heroic Dugald residents used signs, billboards and doors as stretchers, and a local farmer used his tractor to pull two cars away from the train so they wouldn’t catch fire. At the time, a Free Press night reporter, driving around monitoring his scanner, beat police to the horrific scene. In 2007, a marker was unveiled to commemorate the disaster.

 

2) The date: July 6, 2013

The disaster: The Lac-Mégantic nightmare

The details: Given its massive media exposure, this is likely Canada’s most famous rail disaster and the one with the most widespread impact, spurring tighter regulations for the transport of dangerous goods. In the early-morning hours, a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train carrying 7.7 million litres of a particularly combustible crude oil hurtled into the Quebec town, where it derailed and exploded, causing fires that killed 47 people and destroyed the town’s downtown core. The fires burned for days. The victims were mostly identified by DNA samples and dental records. The horror began when, just before midnight, the train was parked on a downward slope with one motor running to power the air brakes. When an engine fire erupted, forcing fire crews to shut down the engines, the air-brake system eventually failed. An insufficient number of hand brakes had been set by the engineer, and the train hit Lac-Mégantic travelling at 105 km/h. One Wednesday, a Quebec coroner released 47 reports — one for each person who died — with each stating: “This is a violent death. This death was preventable, or avoidable.” Three employees of the railway face 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death. The company also faces charges.

 

1) The date: June 29, 1864

The disaster: The St-Hilaire Horror

The details: It happened a few years before Confederation but remains Canada’s deadliest rail accident. A Grand Trunk train carrying between 354 and 475 passengers — many newly arrived German and Polish immigrants seeking a new life — was travelling from Quebec City to Montreal when, around 1:20 a.m., it approached a swing bridge over the Rivière Richelieu near modern-day Mont-St-Hilaire. The bridge had been opened to allow five barges and a steamer ship to pass, and a red light a mile ahead signalled for the train to slow down because the crossing was open. Tragically, for whatever reason, the conductor and the engineer failed to see the light. As a result, the engine and 11 coaches, with most of the passengers likely asleep, fell through the gap, one atop the other, crushing a passing barge and sinking into the river. An astonishing 99 people were believed killed and 100 injured in our worst rail disaster, including the conductor, though recently hired engineer William Burnie managed to escape with minor injuries. Online reports state he later claimed he was unfamiliar with the route and had not seen the signal.

 

As Canadians, we know our nation was forged with the might of giant locomotives, but we too often forget how quickly, and tragically, life can go off the rails.

 

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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