Canadian Pacific Railway is facing allegations it parked a train of 57 loaded rail cars, some carrying dangerous goods, unattended in the dark on a mountain slope above Revelstoke, B.C., without applying hand brakes — in breach of emergency directives made after the Lac-Mégantic disaster.
Transport Canada investigators raided CP's headquarters in Calgary last month and seized recordings of radio calls between managers, rail traffic controllers and train crews, trying to piece together what occurred on the night of Feb. 14-15, CBC News has learned.
Investigators accuse the company and superintendent Mark Jackson of ordering a junior conductor and engineer to leave dozens of railcars unattended without hand brakes applied, according to search warrant documents, in violation of edicts from Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.
"It is a bit disturbing," said Revelstoke fire Chief Rob Girard, on learning of the allegations. "Certainly [after] Lac-Mégantic, I thought we would have learned some lessons."
Transport Canada has not laid any charges and the allegations have not been tested in court.
The crew of Train 401 were descending CP's Mountain Subdivision approaching Revelstoke, a town of about 7,000 in southeastern B.C., nearing the end of their shift on the night of Feb. 14, according to documents filed in court. The search warrant papers detail a chain of events that happened over the course of that night.
CP workers were set to walk off the job at midnight in a strike and company managers were directing crews to park their trains and "tie down" their cargo.
Train 401 was carrying dangerous goods, the conductor told Transport Canada investigators. Sources familiar with the incident tell CBC News that included more than a dozen tanker cars of flammable fuel oil.
The conductor and engineer were running out of time before the end of their shift.
The crew was directed to leave 57 cars on the main track without hand brakes, the warrant asserts. Sources say it was to allow the crew to move the tankers carrying fuel to a siding to be parked and secured.
The conductor and engineer, both relatively junior employees, questioned the order coming from the radio operator, sources say, but they were overruled.
They were "informed that the direction came from Mark Jackson, then employed as superintendent, B.C. Interior Division, Canadian Pacific Railway," states the search warrant.
'It was going to be a safe move'
When contacted by CBC News at CP's office in Cranbrook, B.C., Jackson said it would be premature to comment before the investigation is complete.
"I can tell you at the time, based on the info that was provided, it was going to be a safe move. I know myself I've been cleared of any wrongdoing in this," Jackson told CBC News by telephone.
Transport Canada investigators assert that the crew left the railcars without any hand brakes, relying only on secondary air brakes to prevent the train from rolling.
The train remained in place without incident, and was later picked up and moved.
CBC News was unable to reach the crew to ask if they left the railcars unattended without hand brakes, and why.
"Any member who doesn't comply with an order from their supervisor, they run the very real risk of a hard disciplinary response, anything up to and including dismissal," said Greg Edwards, general chairman of the Teamsters Canada Railway Conference, which represents CP engineers.
He said CP does not allow front-line employees to speak to the media, and the conductor's and engineer's jobs could be on the line if they were to speak to CBC News.
'We take these things very seriously'
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Monday the allegations are serious.
"If it is the case that CP Rail did not adhere to our emergency directive, they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Raitt said when asked about the Revelstoke allegations in an interview with CBC's Terry Milewski on Power & Politics.
She said rail company officials should be "very mindful of the fact that it's the president and CEO that was charged in the case of MM&A." That company and some of its officials are facing charges in connection with the deadly 2013 crash in Lac-Mégantic, Que.
"We take these things very seriously — boards, CEOs, whatever — you are responsible for railway safety in Canada and you have to abide by the act."
Raitt said if the allegations in Revelstoke "prove to be real and true, I would ask that board to take a hard look at what's going on in their management."
Risks are serious, brake expert warns
CP's own official policies echo an emergency directive issued in October 2014 by Raitt, which states that rail crews must secure all unattended trains with multiple hand brakes and not rely solely on air brakes, to avoid "possibly catastrophic consequences."
Freight trains rely on air brakes powered by the locomotive to control speed, primarily when a train is in motion. Hand brakes are used to clamp down the wheels to secure parked trains and rail cars, given that air brakes alone can fail.
"Any time you leave cars unattended on the main track without air supply, there's always a possibility any air in the cylinders may leak off," warns Steve Callaghan, a rail brake expert who spent 10 years as an investigator with Canada's Transportation Safety Board.
"On a descending grade, what happens is, as brake cylinder pressure drops, gravity eventually overcomes braking force on the train and things start to move," he says.
CP's rail charts describe the portion of track in question, at the Greely side road roughly 10 kilometres uphill from Revelstoke, as a "heavy grade" with a slope of 1.2 per cent.
Callaghan, a police expert witness in the Lac-Mégantic criminal case, said the problem with a main track runaway is that "the longer the cars keep moving, the higher the speed they attain, the more kinetic energy they've got.
"Basically, bad things can happen if they start to derail."
Revelstoke's mayor and fire chief were surprised and dismayed when CBC News told them about the Transport Canada investigation.
"It's unacceptable in this day and age that any amount of risk is being taken that could cause injury, death, or property damage," said Mayor Mark McKee, acknowledging he doesn't know what occurred that night.
"There's a lot of people that work for CP Rail in this town. They are good people. They are conscientious, they're concerned about safety because their families all live here, so they're as concerned or more concerned than I am, and I don't think they would find this acceptable.
"But there should be safeguards and failsafes in there that ensure things like this don't happen."
Martin Cej, CP's assistant vice-president of public affairs and communications, refused to say what, if any, dangerous goods were involved.
"We have co-operated fully with the investigation and will continue to co-operate fully with Transport Canada. As this is an ongoing investigation, we have no further comment," Cej said in an email.
In Lac-Mégantic, the train had air brakes and some hand brakes applied, but those failed to hold when the engine was shut off and air leaked from the air brakes.
Runaway trains, and cases of runaway "rolling stock," happen on average 35 times a year in Canada, CBC News found in a review of records of the Transportation Safety Board.
Callaghan points to numerous TSB accident investigations where brakes failed, including a 1998 incident in Mont-Joli, Que., where the brake cylinders in the cars bled off within 15 minutes due to a leak in the air hose. The five-platform articulated container car rolled away, colliding with a passenger train, injuring three of the 341 aboard.
In the Revelstoke case, Callaghan said, "Transport Canada has to thoroughly investigate this."
"One thing they're going to have to make clear," Callaghan added, "not just to the railway involved, but to all the railways, that there's going to be zero tolerance with regards to securement policies for trains or cuts of cars transporting dangerous goods.