‘A major challenge:’ Report by railway in fatal B.C. derailment studied impacts of winter weather

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A report by the railway company involved in this week’s deadly derailment in the Rocky Mountains details how challenging it is to run trains in frigid temperatures.

« Harsh winter conditions are an inescapable reality in Canada’s northern climate, » says a document titled White Paper: Railroading in the Canadian Winter on Canadian Pacific Railway’s website.

« Winter has a profound impact on a railway’s operations and its ability to maintain service for its customers. »

A Vancouver-bound train with 112 grain cars was parked with its air brakes engaged on a grade east of Field, B.C., when it started moving on its own around 1 a.m. Monday. The train sped up to well over the limit before 99 cars and two locomotives hurtled off the tracks. It was about –20 C at the time.

Engineer Andrew Dockrell, conductor Dylan Paradis and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer died in the crash.

The white paper said cold increases air leakage from a train’s air-brake system that results in varying air pressures between the head and tail end of a train.

Trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer, left, engineer Andrew Dockrell, centre, and conductor Dylan Paradis, right, were killed when a CP train derailed near Field, B.C., early Monday. (Facebook)

« This is a major challenge. »

Trains are shortened whentemperatures dip below –25 C to ensure pressure remains consistent throughout their entire length, the report said.

A union representative has said the derailed train was shorter than the 135 cars CP has run in recent years. But a veteran Boston-based engineer said 112 cars is still large for a train of full 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, » said Joe Mulligan with Railroad Workers United, a volunteer-run group of rank-and-file railroaders across North America.

The Transportation Safety Board has said the train was parked for two hours before it began to move on its own. Handbrakes were not applied, the board said.

« It would have taken an awful lot of handbrakes to hold a train back that big, » said Mulligan, who added there was nothing to be done once the train was in motion.

The Calgary-based railway said in the report that it also places locomotives at different points along a train in the winter. Distributing power that way makes it quicker to pressurize air brakes. The train that derailed had a locomotive at the front, middle and end.

‘Things break that normally don’t’

In extreme cold, dryers are used to prevent moisture from getting into the brakes, which means it takes longer to pressurize them and do the required safety checks, said the winter railroading report.

« This unavoidably increases the train’s terminal dwell time. »

The white paper also said train speeds must be reduced in frigid temperatures — by at least 16 km/h below –25 C and by at least 32 km/h at –35 C.

Will Young, a locomotive mechanic based in Kansas City, Mo., and an organizer at Railroad Workers United, said cold weather takes a toll on many train components.

« Things break that normally don’t. Steel just becomes brittle. Rubber seals just harden and don’t work. »

Young said he suspects some sort of mechanical issue caused the braking system to lose power. That could have set off the chain of events that led to the catastrophe.

« It only takes that ever-so-slight touch of momentum. »

The spiral tunnels and location of CP Rail derailment. The train started moving on its own and derailed before it reached the second tunnel. (CBC)

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‘To us, it’s a miracle’: Churchill residents celebrate repair of railway washouts

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Churchillians are getting ready to celebrate the completion of repairs to their community’s lifeline. 

The Town of Churchill in Manitoba said in a statement Sunday morning that after slightly more than a month of work, washouts on the Hudson Bay Railway between Gillam and Churchill have been repaired. 

There’s still work to be done before rail service resumes, and it’s not clear whether the line will be operational before winter arrives. 

Nonetheless, residents say news the last washout had been fixed is a big cause to celebrate.

« To us, it’s a miracle and we’re so, so happy that this company took over and they actually got onto the rail line right away and started fixing it right away. It’s amazing. It’s a great crew, » said Rhoda de Meulles, a Churchill resident who owns the town’s hardware store with her husband.

When the track can handle service vehicles — expected to happen in the next few days, according to rail line owners Arctic Gateway — crew members will make it to Churchill. 

de Meulles said when they do, the town will hold a day-long festival to celebrate and thank them.

« People are just ecstatic, » said Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, who called the news a significant milestone for the community.

‘Felt like we were kept hostage’

de Meulles said when the rail line shut down, she felt trapped in her own community.

« We always felt like we were being kept hostage because we couldn’t do anything — couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t see family, nothing, but at least now we know that something is going to happen. »

« We have a lot to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving weekend as the final washout has been repaired allowing the test vehicles and crews to pass to Churchill to continue the surfacing and rail repairs beyond the washouts, » said Murad Al-Katib, a spokesperson for the Arctic Gateway Group that owns the rail line.

Al-Katib said the conglomerate remains hopeful weather conditions will remain favourable. A statement on the homepage of the group’s website makes it clear it’s still possible testing and maintenance of the line may not be completed before winter — meaning service on the line wouldn’t be restored until the spring.

That would be another blow to people living in Churchill who’ve had to cope with higher prices for food and other goods that have had to be flown into the community since the winter melt last year washed out the rail line. A mini food bank for people struggling to make ends meet is still open in de Meulles’ store.

« It’s been very very hard. It’s been hard on trying to bring freight in. It’s been hard on your mind. It’s been hard on our body. You wake up in the morning, you don’t know what’s going to happen today. You don’t know if you’re going to get good news or bad news, » she said.

Even if the rail line isn’t up and running until next spring, de Meulles and Stover agreed knowing there’s a plan to have it functional in the new year is better than what they were facing a year ago.

Joe Stover, a longtime Churchill resident, said it’s a significant milestone for the community. (Submitted by Joe Stover)

« I feel a lot better going into this winter than I did last winter. Last winter there was no certainty, everything was up in the air and it was definitely a lot more negative feelings going into last winter, » Stover said.

With files from Tessa Vanderhart

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