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'Human error' led to runaway grain train in Minnedosa

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/4/2019 (449 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — A train carrying more than 100 cars of grain careened down a hill uncontrolled through the southwestern Manitoba town of Minnedosa last year, the Free Press has learned.

The federal watchdog investigated the runaway train and said the incident showed that Canadian Pacific railway staff had been improperly trained. The railway said it has rectified the issue.

"In this occurrence, a number of operational actions and decisions were not consistent with regulatory requirements and railway standard operating procedures," reads a report obtained through an access-to-information request.

The Minnedosa incident involved a grain train, but occurred on a rail line that is increasingly moving petroleum products, as railways make up for stalled pipeline projects.

That increase has been matched by growing scrutiny of rail safety, after a large CN oil-train spill in western Manitoba in February, the same month three CP employees died in a derailment in the Rockies.

On Jan. 1, 2018, a CP train was heading up a hill in Minnedosa, a town of 2,500 people located 50 kilometres north of Brandon, when the crew encountered difficulty.

A knuckle connector that links cars had broken, initiating the train’s emergency brakes. The crew fixed the issue, and tried charging the air brakes, but the Transportation Safety Board said they didn’t allow enough time.

The train moved for one second before pulling apart, possibly because the throttle wasn’t correctly set.

The crew went to inspect another broken knuckle, without putting on the handbrakes or retainers, which the safety board said was required under the situation.

The crew had gotten off the train, standing beside it, despite a rule requiring them to secure the train if they’re not physically at the control panel.

"The crew members believe that, as they were in close proximity to the train, the train was attended, in compliance with" federal rules.

After fixing the knuckle link, "the locomotive engineer noted that the remainder of the train was starting to roll uncontrolled downhill (i.e., in the reverse direction)."

He "attempted unsuccessfully to catch up with (and couple onto) the uncontrolled portion of the train."

Some 112 loaded grain cars and a mid-train locomotive, “rolled uncontrolled for almost a mile,” speeding through a flashing-light crossing as well as one that uses standard railway crossing signs. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Some 112 loaded grain cars and a mid-train locomotive, “rolled uncontrolled for almost a mile,” speeding through a flashing-light crossing as well as one that uses standard railway crossing signs. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

Some 112 loaded grain cars and a mid-train locomotive, "rolled uncontrolled for almost a mile," speeding through a flashing-light crossing as well as one that uses standard railway crossing signs.

It’s unclear how fast the train was going. The safety board censored that information under a confidentiality clause, which the Free Press has appealed. CP officials refused to reveal the train's speed. The train stopped on its own.

Trains inspected on only one side: whistleblower

OTTAWA — Transport Canada also looked into an issue with Canadian Pacific railway’s inspection of trains leaving its Winnipeg yard a year ago, which the company said it’s rectified.

In a March 22, 2018, information letter — which is less serious than an advisory — the Transportation Safety Board passed along a whistleblower’s claims trains “have been departing the terminal after having only one side of the train inspected.”

OTTAWA — Transport Canada also looked into an issue with Canadian Pacific railway’s inspection of trains leaving its Winnipeg yard a year ago, which the company said it’s rectified.

In a March 22, 2018, information letter — which is less serious than an advisory — the Transportation Safety Board passed along a whistleblower’s claims trains “have been departing the terminal after having only one side of the train inspected.”

At the railyard under the Arlington Street bridge, a train asked for “a pull by-inspection” before leaving the yard, but was told the train was already inspected when it arrived along one side, so staff would only inspect the other side.

The whistleblower was “concerned that train inspection from one side may not always be sufficient to identify potential equipment issues and load-securement issues on the train.”

CP spokesman Jeremy Berry said the incident occurred March 15, 2018. He said his company acted swiftly to educate employees, chalking the issue up to human error.

But Transport Canada said there wasn’t much of a problem.

The regulator “determined these operations were in compliance with rail safety regulations,” wrote spokesman John Cottreau.

“No pull-by inspection was required because the train passed three sites equipped with” automated bearing detectors, which are usually affixed to tracks.

Between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg, the train encountered a detector every 40 miles or less, meaning federal laws did not require the railyard inspection to take place.

—Dylan Robertson

Prior to the incident, the crew had failed to contact a supervisor to let them know they’d used the emergency brakes, despite that being standard protocol. Staff made the wrong decisions despite CP dispatching a senior officer to oversee the repairs.

In March 2018, the safety board reported the incident to the federal regulator, Transport Canada, though a Rail Safety Advisory letter, which is only issued after serious safety breaches.

The safety board flagged six issues, from improperly securing the train, to not using handbrakes, to not radioing in that the crew had initiated the emergency brakes. It asked Transport Canada to review CP’s training program and make sure staff understand the rules.

The regulator followed up "and verified the railway was in compliance with rail-safety regulations," wrote spokesman John Cottreau.

"Transport Canada also reviewed and accepted CP’s response to the (safety board) that outlined actions taken by the railway to address concerns raised in the Rail Safety Advisory letter."

Download Minnedosa runaway train and Winnipeg yard inspection letters

CP spokesman Jeremy Berry said the incident was "the result of human error and CP took immediate action to educate its employees."

It’s unclear if staff members were punished.

The Minnedosa Civic Centre in the community's downtown. "Our community was built around the railroad," said Mayor Pat Skatch. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun files)</p>

The Minnedosa Civic Centre in the community's downtown. "Our community was built around the railroad," said Mayor Pat Skatch. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun files)

Berry said the firm "meets or exceeds all Transport Canada regulations," noting its been ranked as the continent’s safest large railroad.

"Safety is an ongoing journey; it's not about a single destination. It’s a foundational principle, engrained in everything we do, and we recognize that we must remain vigilant with these efforts and commitments to safety."

Minnedosa Mayor Pat Skatch said CP had promptly reported the incident, and no one was harmed.

"It wasn’t an alarming thing that caused people to panic," said Skatch.

"Our community was built around the railroad, and I know there’s lots of dangerous goods, but I have full faith in the railroad, that they are looking at all situations, and keeping that safety is the utmost in their minds."

The safety board has flagged insufficient training in several rail incidents, including one in which a runaway CN train carrying gasoline reached speeds of up to 48 km/h for nearly five kilometres north of Toronto in June 2016.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Friday, April 12, 2019 at 9:43 AM CDT: Clarifies that the incidents near Toronto and in western Manitoba involved CN trains.

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