Ottawa steps in after third derailment 

Cause of latest derailment under investigation, but CN Rail to comply with new rules

Just two days after provincial ministers met with a representative from CN Rail to discuss measures to address an unusual number of train derailments in recent months, the company suffered another derailment.

The second derailment in less than two weeks occurred at Sunset Beach, just south of Lions Bay Marina on Thursday, Nov. 3. Ten empty cars went off the track, disrupting rail traffic but otherwise causing no significant damage.

Ten days earlier, on Oct. 24, nine cars went off the tracks in the Cheakamus Canyon, an area just north of the Aug. 5 derailment that resulted in a spill of almost 40,000 litres of caustic sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River. Up to 95 per cent of living organisms downstream of that spill are thought to have died.

CN Rail and the B.C. Ministry of Transportation are still investigating the cause of all three derailments.

After the second derailment CN agreed to put extra engines in the mid-section of the train to more evenly distribute power through the rail cars and prevent empty sections from jumping the tracks. The train involved in the latest derailment apparently had an extra engine in place.

While the third derailment could be unrelated to the length of the train (all three trains had over 130 cars), the federal Ministry of Transportation wasn’t willing to take that chance and ordered CN to reduce the number of cars on trains using track in the Squamish area.

"Apparently, but I don’t know for a fact, that distributed power was in effect with this last train, so it almost feels like it’s just one thing after another," said Joan McIntyre, the MLA for West Vancouver-Garibaldi.

McIntyre, along with provincial transportation minister Kevin Falcon and environment minister Barry Penner, met with CN after the second derailment, and received assurances that the company was taking the matter seriously.

After the third derailment, McIntyre said the mood was shock.

"We couldn’t believe it," she said. "The speculation is that (the last derailment) was a mechanical error, or more specifically a brake hose, but we won’t know that or what caused the other derailments until the investigations are complete.

"CN has been denying all along that (the cause) is train length, but I know the mayor of Squamish is adamant that the (federal Ministry of Transportation) look into that. And that’s ultimately what was in the CN order."

Falcon contacted the federal Ministry of Transportation the day of the third derailment, and spoke directly to minister Jean-C. Lapierre to demand immediate action.

"Our position was that this was intolerable," added McIntyre.

Transport Canada recently conducted an inspection and review of CN to determine the company’s level of compliance with the Railway Safety Act, which was tabled on Sept. 27, and found several deficiencies. Other significant derailments in Alberta and B.C. were also a factor in the decision.

In the meantime, the ministry has issued a Notice and Order under the Railway Safety Act restricting various freight train activities along that section of track. No train can be longer than 80 cars when northbound between Squamish and Clinton.

CN took over the former B.C. Rail line midway through 2004. According to some former B.C. Rail employees, B.C. Rail trains would rarely exceed 100 cars in length.

CN is taking the issue seriously. According to Jim Feeney, a spokesperson from CN Rail, there is no common thread that connects the three derailments and that train length and track are not being considered as causes of the most recent incident.

He says CN has already taken a number of steps to improve safety, and overall numbers show that the company has been successful.

In the category of major accidents (costing more than $8,700) there have been seven incidents this year compared to 11 during the same time the previous year.

CN took over from B.C. Rail in July of 2004. In 2003, there were 22 major accidents.

In terms of total accidents, there have been 52 leading up to Nov. 3, compared to 129 in 2004 and 164 in 2003.

"Accidents do occur, and we’re trying to reduce their frequency as much as we can, and we have had good success," said Feeney. "Now we’ve had three in the same general area, and we are taking it seriously."

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