Trapped train workers probably couldn't send distress signal: rail expert

Trapped in the wreckage of a derailed train in northern Manitoba, two rail workers likely had no way to call for help, a transportation safety expert says.

'No time to react,' Gordon Lovegrove says of pinned men only discovered when helicopter noticed derailment

An aerial view of the train derailment near Ponton, Man. It is not known if the two workers on board the train had the ability to contact emergency authorities after they became trapped. (Submitted/Transportation Safety Board)

Trapped in the wreckage of a derailed train in northern Manitoba, two rail workers likely had no way to call for help, a transportation safety expert says. 

It wouldn't have mattered what emergency devices were on board last Saturday, suggests Gordon Lovegrove, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia.

"They had no time to react and grab whatever they needed," Lovegrove said of the fatal derailment near Ponton, Man., which claimed the life of one man and left another with life-threatening injuries.

"I doubt they even saw they were heading for a washout and then once they were on the side, out of commission, injured, then it becomes what the system has built-in as a safety check to respond to these guys and get them the care they needed."

Lovegrove believes staff were waiting for the train at stops further up the line, but he could only speculate.

"I'm surprised if it was indeed hours while they were pinned and not getting help, that somebody wasn't tweaking into this, and saying they were supposed to check-in an hour ago or two hours ago," he said.

Once help arrived, emergency personnel worked through the night.

A 38-year-old, who died, and a 59-year-old were trapped in a locomotive for hours after their freight train tried to cross land that was no longer there, halfway between Thompson and The Pas.

'Thrown everywhere'

Their communications equipment, Lovegrove suggests, may have been useless if the washed-out section of track was in a dead zone.

And even if their radios or phones worked, they probably couldn't retrieve them.

"Everything is thrown everywhere, including bodies," Lovegrove said. "It doesn't matter whether [the satellite phone is] hanging up or not, that thing would have to be bolted up inside an almost bomb-proof case when you're talking a derailment."

It isn't known if the two railway workers could have made a distress call.

Transport Canada said it couldn't answer that question, since it will be subject to their investigation.

The Arctic Gateway Group, the company that now operates the railway, declined to answer any of CBC's questions, citing the probe by government agencies.

There is no requirement under the Railway Safety Act to have emergency communications devices on board trains. However, most locomotives usually have that equipment, a Transport Canada official said in an email Saturday.

The RCMP said it was alerted when a helicopter flying above, last Saturday at 5:45 p.m., spotted the derailment below. Sgt. Paul Manaigre acknowledged last weekend the men could have been waiting "a few hours" before RCMP were called. 

Upon receiving the 911 call, officers from the Wabodwen RCMP detachment drove a half-hour south to Ponton, where they were airlifted to the crash site by the same helicopter whose occupants called in the tragedy.

They landed at the swampy area at 6:50 p.m.

"I think the response time is pretty quick," said Sewell, district advisor for the Wabodwen RCMP detachment. "It's basically one hour on the ground at this remote train disaster." 

While the officers were on the way, RCMP dispatchers in Winnipeg spoke with the railway company to confirm the type of hazardous materials on board. He said officers were not delayed.

RCMP said the surviving worker was freed at 2:20 a.m. — eight hours after the emergency was reported to police. The other worker was pronounced dead early Sunday morning, Sewell said. 

Police say the trapped men were conscious when they arrived.

The extrication work was challenging because of the specialized equipment and personnel needed, as well as concerns over the transport cars beginning to leak and moving debris, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre said. 

"I had been told that there was a locomotive partially stacked on top of the primary locomotive, which you have to assume could move at any time," he wrote in an email.

The province said Friday the diesel leak from the locomotive, spilling into the Metishto River, has been contained.

Sewell said the helicopter's participation in the emergency response was ruled unsafe by CANUTEC, a government agency looking after transportation incidents consisting of dangerous goods, so ambulance and fire personnel arrived by rail. 

Beaver, high water possible culprits

They came across 30-50 feet of washed-away track, according to Jerry Berriault, a regional senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, in an interview earlier this week.

He said two wooden culverts became blocked sometime after the last inspection on Sept. 13, two days before the derailment. The buildup of water eventually broke the foundation supporting the tracks.

High water in the area and beaver activity may have caused the blockage, Berriault said. 

The lead locomotive, travelling 40 kilometres per hour, ran off the track, derailing two more locomotives and four railcars.

The TSB decided to classify its investigation into the incident as a Class 3 occurrence, spokesperson Alexandre Fournier said.

An investigation, perhaps resulting in recommendations, generally takes around 450 days, he said. Any findings will be made public. 

It was announced in late August that the Arctic Gateway Group had purchased, from Denver-based Omnitrax, the flood-damaged Hudson Bay Railway line between Winnipeg and Churchill.

The consortium includes Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings and Manitoba's Missinippi Rail Limited Partnership, as well as Saskatchewan-based AGT. 

Via Rail has temporarily suspended passenger service on the line until the railway is deemed safe. No timeline for restoration has been determined. 


Sept. 15, unknown — Train runs off track. Investigators with the Transportation Safety Board are trying to determine when it happened. A RCMP spokesperson said it may have occurred a few hours before police were alerted.

Sept. 15, 5:45 p.m. — RCMP receive a call from a helicopter who happened to fly over the area about the train derailment.

Sept. 15, 6:50 p.m. — Two police officers from the Wabowden RCMP detachment arrive at the site of the derailment. They were airlifted by helicopter.

Sept. 16, early morning — A 38-year-old man on board the train is pronounced dead. 

Sept. 16, 2:20 a.m. — The surviving worker is freed from the locomotive. He was trapped for at least eight hours.

With files from Marianne Klowak, Sarah Petz and Scott Gibson

About the Author

Ian Froese


Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.