By Annette Bradford  

Trains were integral to Canada’s nationhood. The first trans-Canada railway — built as a promise to British Columbia upon entry into Confederation in 1885 — provided a way to move goods and people from one side of our vast country to another.

An average of 63 people die in trespassing and crossing incidents on Canada’s railways each year.

Here are some ways to stay safe from Operation Lifesaver.
- Do not walk, run, cycle or ATV on railway tracks or through tunnels.
- Never drive around lowered gates.
- Always expect a train. Trains do not follow set schedules. 

Today, trains are more popular than ever. Rail travel is essential to moving freight around the continent, and commuter trains are becoming more popular as people look for ways to escape traffic.

Canada has 73,000 kilometres of railway tracks and 37,000 crossings according to Operation Lifesaver, a site that advocates for rail safety across the country.

As seen in the film, Why Trains Crash, rail travel can be deadly.  Many trains weigh more than 100 tonnes and often travel at speeds exceeding 100 kilometres an hour. It can take at least two kilometres for a train to come to a complete stop.

On July 6, 2013, a freight train carrying crude oil rolled into Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, derailed downtown and exploded, killing 47 people, making it the fourth deadliest rail accident in Canadian history. An investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada identified 18 distinct causes and contributing factors for the crash. These included maintenance issues, inadequate training, failure to set enough hand brakes and leaving the train unattended on a main line.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: There were many opportunities to avoid a deadly crash that killed 47 people in July, 2013.

New regulations were put in place to avoid a similar incident which included newer reinforced cars to ship oil. Despite this, some experts say that little has changed and that massive oil trains are still allowed to speed through urban areas putting people at risk. 

Here are some of Canada’s worst rail disasters.

Saint-Hilaire Quebec Disaster: On June 29, 1864, a train carrying German and Polish immigrants was unable to stop for a swing bridge over the Richelieu River. The train plunged into the gap, and the coaches piled on top of each other; 99 people died, making it Canada’s deadliest rail accident.

Why it Happened: The accident was caused by human error. Neither the conductor nor the engineer saw a red light which signalled the train to stop. The Grand Trunk Railway was deemed responsible.

Dugald Disaster: On September 1, 1947, a passenger train headed west crashed into an eastbound train in Dugald, Manitoba because it failed to turn into a siding. Due to rationing of steel during the Second World War, old wooden passenger cars were kept in service. Thirty-one people died in a fire which was fed by the old cars’ gas illumination.

Why It Happened: The crew’s error was precipitated by seeing a clear signal which implied that the track ahead was clear, which led them to ignore previously received orders to stop.  Newer, safer railway cars were ordered.

Mississauga Derailment: On November 10, 1979, a 106- car freight train derailed in Mississauga Ontario. Several tankers exploded, sending a fireball 1500 metres into the sky, seen 100 km away. One of the ruptured cars was carrying toxic chlorine gas. Fearful of the chance that a cloud of toxic gas would kill nearby residents, the city evacuated 200,000 people for six days.

Why it Happened: The potentially deadly derailment occurred because of an improperly lubricated journal bearing on one of the wheels. Friction from the moving train burned through the axle and bearing causing a wheelset to fall off – referred to as a “hot-box.”’ Subsequent legislation ensured that trains carrying toxic materials were outfitted with hot-box detectors.