CN remote locomotives “not operating” in Cheakamus Canyon 

Served “no purpose” says investigator

Transportation Safety Board’s chief investigator says two remote locomotives in the CN train that derailed in the Cheakamus Canyon last summer were not running and were a drag on the train. Photo by Bonny Makareawicz
  • Transportation Safety Board’s chief investigator says two remote locomotives in the CN train
    that derailed in the Cheakamus Canyon last summer were not running and were a drag on the
    train. Photo by Bonny Makareawicz

Of the seven locomotives in the almost three-kilometre Canadian National Railway train that derailed in the Cheakamus Canyon near Squamish last August only four were operational, according to the chief investigator of the accident.

One of the five locomotives located at the front of the 144-car train and two remote locomotives two-thirds from the lead engine were not operational at the time of the derailment, George Fowler, the Transportation Safety Board’s (TSB) chief investigator confirmed.

The two remote locomotives, although placed behind the 101 st car on the CN train, were within federal guidelines, Fowler said, adding that one of the lead engines had been brought online shortly before the derailment.

“They [the remote locomotives] would serve no purpose other than to provide two very heavy freight cars,” Fowler said. “That’s all they are is a drag.”

Fowler has just finished a 25-page draft report looking into the cause of the derailment that split one tank car loaded with sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River, killing over 500,000 fish in a matter of hours. The draft report, being sent to CN and Transport Canada for input, examines events leading up to the accident and questions whether basic procedures were followed.

“We looked at what kind of train was this, how it was made up, how many cars and locomotives did it have, where the locomotives were made, “ said Fowler, who has traveled to B.C. several times during the investigation to interview CN staff, former BC Rail employees and others connected with the incident.

Fowler said he and two other investigators also looked at how rested, well trained and how familiar were the crew with the territory. Other factors included examining how the 2800-meter train was “marshalled” or put together.

“We don’t like to leave any stone unturned,” he said.

North bound trains headed up the Cheakamus Canyon are usually empty bulkhead flat cars or wood chip gondola cars but if loaded, are located close behind the front locomotives. There were three cars loaded with sodium hydroxide, the basic ingredient in lye, located behind the front locomotives when the train derailed at mile 56.6 of the run.

“That line is one of the most challenging for railroads in the country, with steep grades and very sharp curves,” Fowler said in a telephone interview from the TSB’s Richmond Hill, Ontario offices. Fowler said extra care has to be taken operating long trains with empty cars on the Cheakamus run.

“Empty cars are light and don’t necessarily like to follow the rails around a curve.”

Former B.C. Rail engineer and Pemberton resident Gary Arnott knows that too well. A 20-year veteran who left BC Rail after CN bought the railway, Arnott drove trains, sometimes over three kilometers in length up the Cheakamus Canyon and says a quarter-inch wheel slip can derail a train.

“One wheel flip, one jerk of two locomotives will break a knuckle,” Arnott said about the couplings that hold cars together. Arnott said how cars are coupled or joined together with short or long draw bars and with remote locomotives placed at appropriate points affects how easily trains negotiate Cheakamus Canyon’s sharp curves.

“If you have too long of a train, at a certain point in the middle of a train you’re going to exceed 250,000 foot pounds of torque on the knuckle. And one little wheel slip it either breaks a knuckle or clotheslines,” he said.

Clotheslining or straightlining occurs when cars chord a curve rather than travel around it.

Arnott said that as a BC Rail engineer his crews always preferred to place a remote locomotive after 50 cars in a long train to prevent the possibility of straightlining on a tight curve.

Last November the federal Minister of Transport ordered CN to restrict train lengths traveling north bound up the Cheakamus Canyon to 80 cars, but later amended the order to 114 if they have operational remote locomotives located in the train according to operating instructions.

What other factors may have contributed to the derailment will be included in Fowler’s final report intended for release before August 5, the first anniversary of the accident.

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