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Train collision near Portage la Prairie sparks calls to expedite fail-safe controls, add training

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A collision between two CN freight trains west of Winnipeg has the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) calling for urgent action to improve safety.

It happened in January 2019 on a section of track just east of Portage la Prairie, Man.

Two crew members were forced to jump from one train when it collided with cars on a second train going the opposite direction.

The TSB said the crew on an eastbound train didn’t stop when they were supposed to.

The investigation found fatigue, ineffective communication and the absence of a physical fail-safe system to stop the train were contributing factors.

“As a result of the collision, both trains derailed,” said Kathy Fox, chair of the TSB, at a news conference in Winnipeg. “The train 318 crew jumped from the locomotive just after the collision narrowly avoiding serious injury.”

The crash happened at a transition to double track.

It was only when the front ends of the two trains passed each other that the eastbound crew began applying the brakes in emergency but by that time it was too late.

An investigation by the TSB revealed the eastbound train passed a signal indicating it should be preparing to stop which the conductor communicated but the locomotive engineer didn’t respond to and continued at track speed.

“The crew did not respond appropriately to the signal indications displayed in the field which ultimately led to the collision,” said Rob Johnston, the TSB’s manager of central regional rail operations.

Two locomotives from eastbound train 318 and eight cars from westbound train 315 sustained damage and derailed. The crew members who jumped suffered minor injuries.

Investigators said the crew thought they would follow an earlier eastbound train through to Winnipeg without stopping while using a trip optimizer, similar to cruise control, which it said contributed to a delayed reaction.

The TSB said the locomotive engineer was tired due to disrupted sleep and there was no physical fail-safe device to stop the train after the crew failed to do so.

“In the absence of a physical defence there’s no automatic intervention to slow or stop a train,” Fox said.

The TSB said these incidents are on the rise. Figures it provided show since 2004, there’s been an annual average of 31 reported incidents where a train crew did not respond appropriately to a signal indication. The number of incidents hit highs of 40 in 2018 and 38 in 2019. Not all resulted in collisions.

In light of the 2019 collision near Portage and other high-profile derailments, including one in 2012 involving a VIA Rail train near Burlington, Ont. where three crew members were killed and 45 passengers were injured, the TSB is calling on Transport Canada and the Canadian Railway Industry to expedite the implementation of physical fail-safe train controls.

“If a crew goes past a signal indication that they’re not supposed to or they’re supposed to be reducing the speed of the train and they don’t take appropriate action the system automatically intervenes and slows the train,” Johnston said.

Such systems exist in Europe and are being implemented in the United States but none are in use by federally-regulated freight or passenger railways in Canada despite the TSB calling for them over the past two decades.

“What we feel is there’s a sense of urgency that’s lacking,” Fox said. “And that’s why we’ve made this third recommendation to expedite the implementation and we’ve also expanded it to include key trains and key routes as opposed to just the high-speed rail corridors.”

The TSB is also calling on Transport Canada to beef up training requirements for crew members to provide them with additional tools and strategies to help avoid errors.

In an emailed statement, Transport Canada pointed to a February 2022 Notice of Intent to implement Enhanced Train Technologies in Canada. But the TSB said it’s a promise that lacks details and timelines.

Transport Canada said the federal Minister of Transport will review the TSB’s investigation report and will respond to the recommendations within 90 days.

A CN spokesperson said the company is also reviewing the board’s findings.

“Safety is a core value at CN and we learn from every incident on our network to improve our practices,” the railway company said in an email.

The TSB said the issue will remain on its watchlist until Transport Canada requires railways to implement additional physical safety defences to ensure signals governing operating speeds and limits are consistently followed. 

The full investigation can be read on TSB’s website.

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