Derailed Via train's event recorder found

The event recorder from the wreckage of a fatal Via Rail train derailment west of Toronto is recovered, as investigators try to piece together what happened.

Transportation Safety Board probes crash that killed 3 engineers

The event recorder from the wreckage of a fatal Via Rail train derailment west of Toronto was recovered Monday morning, offering investigators hope of finding out what caused the accident that killed three Via engineers.

The Transportation Safety Board said Monday that the Toronto-bound train was travelling from the Niagara region and switching tracks when it derailed near Burlington, Ont., at about 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.

The three engineers who died were riding in the cab of the locomotive, which toppled onto its side and slid into a building at the side of the tracks.

The recovered Via Rail event recorder sits on the floor of a Transportation Safety Board vehicle Monday morning at the scene of the derailment in Burlington, Ont. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

"[The crash] destroyed the locomotive cab with the three of them in it," lead TSB investigator Tom Griffith said Monday.

In all, 45 people were admitted to hospitals to be treated for injuries ranging from minor to a broken leg, a back injury and a heart attack, Via officials said. As of Monday evening, eight passengers remained in hospital.

Griffith told a news conference the train's event recorder appeared at first to have been damaged, but investigators now expect to recover useful information. The orange-coloured device, sometimes called a black box, can record information such as the train's speed, whether the brakes were applied and at what force and whether the whistle was blowing, he said.

"It tells us everything that that crew was doing inside that locomotive," he said. "The only thing it does not tell us is the voice. There's no voice recording on the locomotive. There is in air [crashes], but not on rail."

Griffith said the speed limit on that stretch of track is "80 miles an hour" [129 km/h], but slower when a train is crossing from one track to another, as this train was.

He said the crew members were at the front of the train. "As to who was on the controls, right now we're still investigating that."

The three Via employees who were killed were identified Monday morning as:

  • Ken Simmonds, 56, of Toronto.
  • Peter Snarr, 52, of Toronto.
  • Patrick Robinson, 40, of Cornwall, Ont.

Both Simmonds and Snarr had more than 30 years of service as locomotive engineers with CN and Via, the passenger-rail company said in a statement. It described Robinson as a new Via employee, who was on board as an observer as part of his familiarization program.

Griffith said it's possible Robinson was at the controls at the time of the crash, but said he would have only been allowed to operate the locomotive "under strict supervision from the other two locomotive engineers."

TSB investigator Tom Griffith talks with reporters at the scene Monday morning. (Neil Herland/CBC)

A fourth Via employee was injured.

Via Rail began cleanup operations early Monday at the scene near Plains and King roads in Burlington.

The Transportation Safety Board is also beginning what's expected to be a year-long investigation. If any urgent safety issues are identified, they will be made public before the final report.

The derailment involved five cars as well as the locomotive.

Via president and CEO Marc Laliberté extended his condolences on behalf of the company on Monday afternoon.

Deadly Canadian train accidents

2006: A CN train derailment occurred near Lillooet, B.C., in which the train slid more than 200 metres down a mountain. Two employees were killed. An inadequate braking system was at fault.

1999: A Via train carrying 186 passengers derailed in Thamesville, Ont. It collided with stationary railcars on an adjacent track. Two crew members in the locomotive were fatally injured.

1986: A speeding CN freight train slammed into a Via train as it headed eastward from Hinton to Edmonton, killing 23 people and injuring 71 others. Human error was to blame.

"This is an extremely sad moment for all of us at Via Rail," he said. "This tragic accident has touched us very deeply. Our thoughts and our prayers go to the customers who were injured yesterday.… I hope they are going to recover quickly and completely."

Laliberté also thanked those who were involved in the rescue effort.

Among the dozens of passengers injured, three were airlifted to hospitals in Hamilton, one with a heart attack, another with a broken leg and the third with a back injury. The other passengers suffered less serious injuries and were either treated at the scene or sent to local hospitals.

An official with Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington said the hospital had seen 20 people from the accident, with injuries ranging from minor to serious. Patients were also taken to the Credit Valley Hospital and Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga.

The train's manifest listed 75 passengers, but emergency officials said they couldn't confirm whether it was accurate.

Late Monday, Halton Regional Police issued an appeal "to any outstanding passengers" who were on the train that derailed, but have yet to make contact to police.

Police say they do not know the current whereabouts of about a dozen passengers who left the scene using private transportation.

Safety questions

Emile Therien, a railway safety watchdog with the non-profit Canada Safety Council, told CBC News he was not surprised at news of the deadly derailment.

Since 1999, he told CBC News, the federal government has allowed the railway industry to develop its own safety standards while cutting back on spot inspections. There were almost 1,100 accidents involving trains in 2010, more than half of them derailments.

"This awful thing in Burlington should be a wake-up call," he said. "I think Canadians would be shocked to realize how little involvement the federal government has in railway safety."

Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel declined to be interviewed by CBC News about Sunday’s derailment.

However, he issued a statement saying "the department will verify that the company continues to comply with all aspects of the Transport Safety Act." 

Travel information

VIA RAIL: Customers travelling Monday on the line from Toronto to Niagara should expect to be getting on buses. Customers are also being told to contact the service line: 1-888-842-6141.

GO TRAINS, LAKESHORE WEST LINE: Service will originate and terminate at Burlington for an extended period. GO Bus service will operate in each direction between Burlington and Aldershot. GO Trains will originate from Burlington with a five-to-10-minute delay. Trains will bypass Aldershot station until further notice.

With files from The Canadian Press