Two pressurized tanker cars loaded with propane collided at a Canadian Pacific Railway yard northeast of Edmonton, marking the third such accident at the Scotford Yard involving a remote-controlled train in less than two months, CBC News has learned.

Sunday's collision involved a crew standing on the ground while operating a device known as a Beltpack to move a locomotive and assemble trains. It occurred as CP looks to expand use of the remote-control technology across Canada.

"At approximately 7:30 p.m. [Sunday] two railcars brushed up against one another causing minor damage to the ladder of one railcar," CP's assistant vice-president of public affairs, Martin Cej, told CBC News in an email.

"The ladder will be fixed. There were no injuries and no public safety issues."

On Monday, CP refused to confirm the use of a remote control, wouldn't discuss what dangerous goods were involved, and failed to immediately report this latest accident to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

In early December, four cars at the yard being moved by remote control derailed, spilling almost 100,000 litres of styrene at the site. 

Then on Dec. 26, three cars of plastic pellets also being moved by a crew on the ground operating a Beltpack derailed but remained upright.

Scotford Yard train derailment

CP Rail crews are shown at the site of a train derailment near Scotford Yard, northeast of Edmonton, on Dec. 8, 2015. Two more accidents have since occurred at the site. (CBC News)

'Inadvertently not reported'

The railway told CBC in an email Monday that "CP informs the TSB of all collisions." However, when CBC contacted the safety board on Tuesday, an official said they had not been told of the collision.

"Thank you for the information about Sunday evening's occurrence at Scotford Yard. It was indeed a reportable occurrence that was inadvertently not reported due to a misunderstanding by railway personnel on duty at the time," TSB spokesman Chris Krepski told CBC in an email.

"CP will be providing the occurrence details to the TSB shortly."

TSB accident-reporting guidelines demand railways notify authorities by way of a 24-hour telephone hotline "as soon as possible" after an accident, allowing companies additional days to provide greater detail.

Sunday's minor crash comes at a sensitive time for CP, which recently announced plans to eliminate 1,000 jobs as well as expand the use of remote-control train operators across Canada. The move would replace more senior, more expensive locomotive engineers.

Beltpack

The device shown here, known as a Beltpack, allows train operators standing nearby to drive the train remotely. (Transportation Safety Board)

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced he was sending a special "ministerial observer" to Scotford Yard late last year, after CBC reported the Dec. 8 derailment and spill of liquid styrene involved a remote-controlled train.

What's more, CP is in arbitration with its main employee union over expansion plans for the RCLS (Remote Control Locomotive System).

"Anything short of a catastrophe when you're involving propane cars, you have to consider it as lucky," said Doug Finnson, president of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference.  He called this latest accident alarming.

"I think it's quite embarrassing to CP and it's consistent with the other accidents we've had reported to us in the recent months … and I think that this is a testimony that the safety-management system that's in place is just not working," Finnson said.

CP reported details Wednesday

Earlier this week, CP insisted the remote-control technology "played no role" in Sunday's accident. But the company refused to confirm whether a Beltpack was being used at the time.

Cej also refused to say whether dangerous goods were involved, asking CBC over the phone Monday what difference it would make if the cars carried restricted cargo, as opposed to grain or timber, given it was a minor incident.

By Wednesday afternoon, CP had reported accident details to the TSB, revealing the rail cars were pressurized tankers loaded with propane and were being moved by remote control.  

Sources tell CBC one of the Beltpack operators involved in Sunday's accident was new to the job and also involved in the Dec. 26 derailment. The operator had just returned to work after serving a 30-day suspension for the earlier incident.

CP held interviews and an "investigation" meeting Wednesday with the employees involved in this latest incident. They face potential dismissal.

"I'm deeply concerned with the entire situation," Finnson said, adding he believes RCLS training provided to new employees is insufficient.

"If new workers refuse to work, they will be fired," according to Finnson. "That's the way it is at CP right now."

With files from Janice Johnston