Canada’s major freight rail companies are fighting moves by the federal transportation regulator to curb “extreme fatigue” among railway engineers, a CBC News investigation has found.

CN Rail, CP and the Railway Association of Canada went on the attack two weeks ago at a “tense and heated” meeting of industry, union and government representatives, according to a number of people present.

The conflict was over research by Transport Canada that found high levels of exhaustion among workers driving freight trains, and proposals by the regulator to impose new limits on scheduling to help reduce their fatigue.

"The body language from industry was, 'You're not going to push us around,'" said Rob Smith of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference recalling a meeting two weeks ago of the Fatigue Management Working Group, part of the federal government’s Advisory Council on Railway Safety.

He said industry was determined to ​discredit Transport Canada's research and thwart the regulator's proposals.

CBC received internal documents

CBC News has obtained internal Transport Canada documents, including meeting minutes and the working group's draft report that details widespread fatigue among freight engineers and proposes mandatory restrictions — some of which are already law in the U.S. — on how workers are scheduled to prevent exhaustion.

The government report concludes that rail lags behind the airline and trucking industries in dealing with fatigue. Reviews over the last three decades have always left it to the railway industry and its unions to sort out the problem.

Hinton, Alta. crash

In 1986, 23 people died after a CN freight train crashed into a VIA passenger train in Hinton, Alta. Investigators suspect the CN crew fell asleep. (Karen Sornberger/Edmonton Journal/CP)

​ In 2009, the regulator established the fatigue working group to address this longstanding issue.

Transport Canada's own analysis of CN and CP’s employee scheduling records from six different rail terminals across Canada concluded that, based on the timing and length of each shift, assigned through an unpredictable on-call system, that “extreme fatigue” was rampant:

  • In four per cent of cases, employees were already “extremely fatigued” at the start of their shifts;
  • 45 per cent of employees became extremely exhausted during work;
  • and nearly all, or 99 per cent, were fatigued at least once during the month.

Combined with the results of a union survey, Transport Canada is now proposing enhanced safeguards and wants to harmonize Canada’s rail rules with requirements already in place in the U.S. that limit the hours and days railroaders can spend at work or on call.

The moves are designed to prevent companies from pressuring workers to drive trains while exhausted, as was the case in 2009 when a CP Rail dispatcher phoned engineer Paul Proudlock in the middle of the night, asking that he report for duty to drive a passenger train in Toronto.

Proudlock refused, explaining he only had two hours' sleep. But the dispatcher told him he had to take it or else he’d be marked as "refusing duty," exposing him to potential discipline. Proudlock complained and Transport Canada eventually admonished CP Rail. 

Accusations of bias, bad science

Discussions at the September 17-18 meetings of the working group became heated in a conflict over the working group's draft report, which the Railway Association of Canada described "as being written by someone who wants to shut the railways down at night,” according to the minutes. 

CN’s Don Watts attacked the regulator's findings. “It appears that TC had a biased opinion coming into this meeting,” the minutes state. Because the group hadn't reached consensus and CN opposed the report’s findings, Watts expressed concern that the public could get a copy of it through the Access to Information Act.

Paul Proudlock

In the summer of 2009, Paul Proudlock was asked to drive a GO Transit passenger train on two hours' sleep. (CBC)

CN also challenged Transport Canada’s definition of “extremely fatigued,” and, along with CP and the RAC, said all the data collected in its February 2014 analysis of scheduling at six terminals was skewed. It “was one of the busiest months in 20 years, as poor weather conditions resulted in an increase in emergency situations where employees were required to work longer shifts,” the industry representatives said.

Transport Canada defended its work, saying scheduling should always ensure safety "regardless of the weather." As for whether fatigue was considered "moderate" or "extreme," Transport Canada argued that for a worker to be routinely awake for 17 to 19 hours is equivalent to them being drunk. 

The government regulator cited seven Transportation Safety Board (TSB) accidents within the last five years where shift irregularity contributed "to the fatigue of the crew."

However, the reports says the problem is likely much worse, because the TSB does not routinely include  the effects of monotonous work, high workloads and environment conditions in its incident investigations.

Railways stalling because of cost: union rep

The railroad reps were supposed to come to the meeting with recommendations so the working group could arrive at a consensus on six factors: scheduling; accounting for the length of time the person has already been awake; recuperative rest; respecting the challenges of night and day work; the ability of an employee to assess their own fatigue level; and rest facilities away from home.

In some cases, CN, CP and the RAC said they would not support rule changes, arguing that their fatigue management plans and health and safety committees already address these issues. CP hadn't formed an opinion on some issues. The RAC's McKinnon told the meeting it was going to be impossible to reach a consensus.

Transport Canada staff responded that the government had the final say if no consensus was reached: "Fatigue is an issue which can no longer be ignored."

Since the meeting, the rail companies have demanded that Transport Canada rewrite its draft report. 

"Industry knows there's a problem, but doesn't want to address it," said the TCRC's Smith. "They wanted to go back and open this up again and have their own researchers look into it, where they've had months and months to do this previously."

The reason, he says, is the "cost."

Clinton Marquardt, a fatigue specialist who has worked with the TSB on 91 accident investigations, most recently the Lac Megantic disaster, says company demands for profit and efficiency have for too long been prioritized at the expense of the welfare of engineers.

“I think Transport Canada has to step up and play a strong leadership role here and say, 'Enough is enough,'” Marquardt says, adding that it's time for rail companies to be forced to put their employees' biological needs for sleep ahead of profits.

Any tips on this or any other story, please contact John Nicol or Dave Seglins.