Rail accidents and disasters in Canada

There are hundreds of train collisions and derailments every year on Canada's railways, but unlike the recent derailment of a Via Rail passenger train in Burlington, Ont., most aren't fatal, occur off the main tracks and involve freight trains. We take a look at some of Canada's most memorable train disasters.

Most collisions, derailments not fatal

The April 2001 derailment of a Via Rail passenger train near Stewiacke, N.S. was one of Canada's strangest train accidents. A 13-year-old boy who tampered with a rail switch was found to be responsible for the crash, which saw nine of the train's 14 cars go off the track and head for the small town. One of the cars, pictured, smashed into a farm supply store, destroying the building. (Tim Krochak/Canadian Press)

There are hundreds of train collisions, accidents and derailments every year on Canada's railways. Most aren't fatal and occur off the main tracks, in rail yards and terminals, but some result in injury, death, and the spill of dangerous cargo.

Canada has about 73,000 kilometres of railway tracks and 37,000 public, private and pedestrian highway/railway crossings, according to the organization Operation Lifesaver, which partners with rail companies and government agencies to educate the public about railway safety.

Collisions and derailments on this extensive network of tracks and crossings mostly involve freight trains and occur during switching operations off the main track, when trains are travelling at speeds of less than 16 km/h, according to the Transportation Safety Board. In 2012, just 7 per cent of all the accidents were main-track derailments or collisions (the five-year average is 107 a year).

In 2012, 69 per cent of the 1,011 rail accidents that occurred in Canada involved freight trains, 4 per cent were passenger trains, and the remaining 27 per cent involved single or small groups of railcars, locomotives or units that service the tracks.

Dangerous goods were involved in 118 of the rail accidents in 2012, and two of them resulted in that cargo being released into the environment. Over the past five years, there has been an average of three train accidents a year involving the release of dangerous material.

When passenger trains are involved in an accident, it's usually in crossing and trespassing incidents rather than the kind of derailment that occurred on Feb. 26, 2012, in Burlington, Ont. 

In fact, the majority of passenger or cargo train accidents that result in injury or death occur at road and rail intersections and involve motor vehicles, pedestrians, or people trespassing onto railway rights-of-way.

The problem is that an average freight train traveling at 100 kilometres per hour or a passenger train moving at 160 km/h takes about two kilometres to stop after the engineer slams on the brakes. It's virtually impossible for a fast-moving train to avoid hitting something that appears on the tracks immediately ahead of it, or stop suddenly if there's a problem with the tracks or train itself.

Since 2001, there have been anywhere from 71 to 103 deaths a year in what the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) calls crossing and trespasser accidents. 

In 2012 there were 82 rail-related fatalities in Canada and 72 serious injuries — and of those, 29 people died and 32 were seriously injured in crossing accidents, while trespassing accidents resulted in 49 deaths and 21 serious injuries.

Here's a look at serious rail incidents in Canada over the past 150 years:

July 2013: A train with 72 tankers of oil that had been parked on the rails overnight and left unattended starts to roll, travelling about 10 kilometres before derailing in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. The explosions devastate the town and kill 47.

February 2012: A train travelling from the Niagara region to Toronto derails while switching tracks near Burlington, Ont., killing three engineers in the locomotive and injuring 45 passengers.

October 2010: Three Montreal teens who had trespassed into the Turcot rail yards to graffiti a wall are killed by a passenger train.

May 2010:father and his two young daughters are killed when their pickup truck is hit by a passenger train at a level crossing near Edmonton.

February 2010: A Via Rail train travelling from Halifax to Montreal derails near Saint-Charles-de-Bellechasse outside Quebec City, injuring seven passengers and crew. Earlier that same month, a freight train carrying potash goes off the tracks west of Rivers, Man., spilling its contents and causing an estimated $3 million in damage. Passengers on a Vancouver-bound train that was to travel the same stretch of tracks are stranded in Winnipeg for 19 hours as a result.

April 2001: About 22 people are taken to hospital when nine cars of a 14-car passenger train jump the tracks and go barrelling toward the town of Stewiacke, N.S., outside Halifax. Employees at a farm supply building on the outskirts of town narrowly escape injury when one of the rail cars smashes into the building and another folds itself around it, completely destroying the structure. A local 13-year-old boy later admits to tampering with a rail switch and causing the derailment. He pleads guilty to mischief endangering life and is sentenced to six months in a youth detention centre.

January 2000: About 43 people are injured — eight of them seriously — after a passenger train slams into a chain of stationary boxcars at a rail yard in Miramichi, N.B. The TSB concludeds that the train had been diverted off the main track because miscommunication among rail workers had resulted in a switch being left locked in the reverse position.

August 1999: A Via Rail train derails and crashes into a chain of stationary freight cars near Thamesville, Ont., killing the train's engineer and an engineer-in-training. Seventy-seven other passengers and crew are injured. An open switch, caused by human error, is blamed for the crash. The two engineers are praised for acting quickly to minimize the impact of the crash and to warn an oncoming passenger train.

September 1997: A female passenger is killed and 78 others are injured when a passenger train derails near Biggar, Sask. The TSB determines the derailment was caused by a fracture of the lead axle on the train's trailing locomotive.

July 1992: Two crew members are killed when a CN freight train falls into Green Lake near Nakina, Ont. The track the train was travelling on had been left hanging in mid-air after the ground underneath it collapsed because water levels on the lake were lowered when a beaver dam was breached.

February 1986:collision between a Via rail passenger train and a CN freight train kills 23 people and injures 95 near Hinton, Alta., west of Edmonton. A commission of inquiry into the accident finds that the train's operators had failed to heed stop signals because of a "lack of alertness," but since the crew at the head of the train did not survive, what caused the lack of alertness was never discovered.

March 1983: Five people are killed when the Via Rail Dayliner, a passenger commuter train between Calgary and Edmonton, is diverted off the main track and crashes into four empty cars near Carstairs, north of Calgary. The train was diverted as a result of a switch being left open by a rail worker.

November 1950: A train carrying troops of the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery collides with a passenger train east of Canoe River, B.C., killing 21 soldiers and rail crew. The crash was the result of misinformation — each of the trains was expecting to pass the other at a different location from where the crash occurred. The soldiers had been on their way to Fort Lewis in Washington state from where they were to depart for the Korean War.

September 1947: Thirty-one passengers and crew are killed when two passenger trains collide near Dugald, Man. Most of the victims die in the fire that erupts after the collision of the rail cars, which at the time were made of wood, lit by gas lamps and powered by steam engines.

January 1910: A CPR passenger train derails near Sudbury, Ont., when it hits a broken rail, killing 43 people.

June 1864: Almost 100 people are killed and another 100 injured in Canada's worst train disaster when a Grand Trunk train carrying mostly German and Polish immigrants fails to stop at a swing bridge over the Richelieu River near St. Hilaire, Que.