High in the mountains of southeastern B.C., the conductor of a 25,000-tonne Canadian Pacific Railway freight train pulling 2.5 kilometres of cars loaded with potash got a bad feeling.

Headed west to Revelstoke, the train had just cleared a tunnel and was starting to build momentum downhill when he turned to the engineer, the man operating the massive vehicle, and said: "You know we're tippin' over here?"

Terrified the train was about to slide out of control down the mountain, the conductor flipped the emergency lever — overriding the engineer's controls — bringing the train to a screeching stop before it could barrel towards catastrophe.

CBC agreed not to identify the conductor because he fears he'd be fired for speaking out about what happened on the mountain last fall.  

He said the new engineer had just been qualified after three months of training on CP's "Mountain Subdivision" and had failed to ensure adequate air pressure in the brakes for the steep downward grade.

CBC News has heard from multiple sources inside the company who say a recent group of engineer trainees for the mountain routes expressed concern to CP officials that they felt ill-prepared for the job after just a few months of training but were promoted anyway. 

"They are scared because they are forced into it," said the quick-thinking conductor who stepped in for his rookie engineer.

"They are telling them, 'We're not ready. We're not qualified.' But the company and Transport Canada say, 'Oh yeah, we'll qualify them. Only 2 ½ months on the mountain? But what the hell. We've got a warm body in the seat. Hopefully all goes well.'"

The union representing CP engineers has been sounding the alarm over the company's approach to training, which also includes an effort to train managers and office staff — some of whom say they had no professional desire to operate trains — with a few months of instruction.

train2

Transport Canada said it has 'reviewed the matter regarding CP's training program and determined that there were no safety issues.' (CBC News)

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) says the abbreviated engineer training fails to adequately prepare workers to operate massive freight trains on the dangerous mountain routes of B.C.

The TCRC says the program for that recent group of B.C. engineers was cut in half to three months with no winter experience, leaving the recruits unfamiliar and ill-equipped to handle the steep, alpine territory. The union has called on Transport Canada to intervene.  

CP acknowledges the group never received mountain training in the winter. But the company says the workers were qualified and deemed "competent" because they'd each already served two years as conductors in the region (a safety role that assists the engineer) and because they had completed approximately 100 supervised trips.

In an email, Transport Canada said it has "reviewed the matter regarding CP's training program and determined that there were no safety issues."

Learning with simulators

CP's larger, nationwide effort to train more of its unionized workers, office workers and managers to drive trains across its rail network relies heavily on simulators at the company's headquarters in Calgary.

The program started in 2013 when CP's management asked all able employees to learn to work as conductors or engineers in the event of emergencies, labour shortages and even a strike.

Greg Edwards, TCRC general chair for CP's western region engineers, says some managers are fully qualified to serve as engineers, but most being trained now are getting the bare minimum.

"It's a safety issue," he said. "They don't do the work day to day. They get hauled in from the office. They aren't aware where they are sent to drive."

simulator

Much of the engineer training is done at CP headquarters in Calgary using high-tech simulation. (CBC News)

Managers are not required to first spend two years as conductors, which is the case with union engineers. Instead they must complete classroom testing, spend two to four weeks using simulators and then perform "on the job" supervised runs aboard real locomotives.

CP says its training program is state of the art.

The company gave CBC News a tour of its simulators and training facility in Calgary. CEO Keith Creel, who took over in January, says the simulators provide a "richness" of training never before possible.

Inside a Canadian Pacific Railway simulator1:49

"The training has changed dramatically from what some of the union leadership understands," Creel said. "We can do in three or four months what it may have taken them six months."

He says simulators allow the company to condense the program by putting recruits through a wider range of scenarios.

"You might go out on a railroad for five years and have an issue or an exception occur once in five years," Creel said. "I can take them in a simulator, and we can create it five times in 10 hours."

Unfamiliar territory

The Transportation Safety Board raised concern following a mishap in 2015 along rail lines east of Cranbrook B.C., where a manager drove a train eight kilometres down a track before realizing he was in an unauthorized territory.

No one was hurt, but the TSB concluded the manager wasn't sufficiently familiar with the area.

TCRC's Greg Edwards points to a crash on March 6 west of Cranbrook, where a manager-driven train collided with another slow-moving train, derailing one of the cars.

Edwards says what is most alarming is the same manager had problems at the very same location last August. He says a conductor complained to his union because the manager was "completely unfamiliar with the territory" and had to be coached through his basic duties. Edwards says that complaint was sent to the company but the manager continues to work as an engineer.

Creel

Canadian Pacific CEO Keith Creel stands behind the company's engineer training programs. (CBC News)

Creel says mistakes will be made, regardless of which training program an employee completes.

"It's no different than driving a car; the only way you're never going to have a flat tire is if you never drive a car," he said. "And the only way you'll never have a plane crash is if you never fly a plane.

"The only way you'll never have a derailment is if you never run a train."

In the wake of the concerns from both the union and the TSB, Creel has announced new safety requirements that go into effect April 1.

"We're now going to require our officers that do get qualified … to be territorially familiar and be certified over a particular run," he said.

'It's a railroad business'

CBC News has heard from numerous CP managers and office workers who complain driving trains was never what they signed up for.  

One accounting worker in the Prairies said he's terrified but feels he has little choice.

"The concern is you'll be fired," he said. "The culture around how everyone's expected to do their part to help out with the company ... If you don't do it you're going to lose your job."

'But at the end of the day, maybe they don't want to stay working for the railroad.' - Canadian Pacific Railway CEO Keith Creel

Since 2012, all new hires sign a contract committing them to take locomotive training if asked, but Creel says "nobody's gonna be forced to do anything."

If someone is adamant they don't want to be an engineer, a conductor or a railroader of any kind, "I'm not going to fire them," Creel said. However, they will be expected to contribute in other ways.

"But at the end of the day, maybe they don't want to stay working for the railroad … It's part of who we are," he said. "It's a railroad business … It's not an IT company, it's not a marketing company, it's a railroad company — and this country depends upon it."