OTTAWA — The Grant Park signalling incident took place 14 months after CN Rail downgraded its safety infrastructure in Winnipeg.
In October 2015, the company shifted safety duties within the city from a Rail Traffic Controller to a Yard Traffic Controller. Dan Holbrook, TSB's western manager for rail investigations, said in an interview that a YTC position requires less training, and means staff get rotated between network control and on-train operation.
CN has RTC staff in Edmonton and Toronto monitor CN’s entire railway network until those sections reach Winnipeg city limits. As of 2015, a YTC oversees safety the network from Waverly Street in South River Heights, through downtown and alongside The Forks and up until Dugald, just east of the Symington Yards.
Both RTCs and YTCs are responsible for keeping an eye on dashboards that show where trains are moving, and issuing authorizations for them to switch tracks or override rail-traffic signals, to keep a safe flow of traffic.
Yet the TSB says the two are not equivalent. When the agency, which operates as an independent watchdog that probes systematic risks, received an anonymous report about the looming changes, investigated the issue and wrote a rail-safety information letter to Transport Canada, the federal regulator.
The whistleblower was concerned that having two different control systems means “confusion will occur, which will compromise safety” and that the training “will not be as thorough” — though the TSB did not actually arbitrate those claims.
As a result, Transport Canada asked CN to provide a risk assessment before implementing the change, which it did a month in advance. In Canada, railways form their own safety measures based off federal guidelines, with their compliance monitored through occasional audits.
“In the case of non-compliance or safety concerns, the department does not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action,” Transport Canada spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu wrote.
Still, Holbrook said that change contributed to the December 2016 incident, which he calls a major safety breach.
“These events took place in the aftermath of a major, operational change that saw this complex piece of railway plant that was previously controlled by a highly trained rail-traffic controller, now is controlled by somebody who's trained to a lesser extent,” he said.
The incident also highlights risks posed by staffing issues. The controller on shift was intermittently working as a YTC, after months of working shifts solely as a conductor on trains, with no refresher course about the controller job.
“And then you combine that with a management crew, which are well-meaning people that are normally involved in management functions — but for whatever reason are suddenly performing the duties of an experienced train crew,” Holbrook said.
CN spokesman Jonathan Abecassis disputes the TSB’s characterization of the company switching from an RTC to a YTC, insisting his company changed its Winnipeg oversight “with the specific purpose of enhancing safe operations in ensuring locally controlled yard movements.”
He wrote that this “allows only thoroughly trained and certified YTCs to manage train movements, while directly onsite and providing in-person oversight that is necessary for co-ordinated yard maneuvers.”
After the TSB notified the regulator, Transport Canada wrote that its staff “met with Canadian National officials on several occasions to review yard-traffic controller operation and training and supervision at Symington Yard, to verify employees had sufficient knowledge and understanding to safely perform their work,” according to spokeswoman Annie Joannette.