Monday, November 20, 2006 at 4:19 pm

Internal Documents Reveal Extent of CN Accident’s Devastation

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CN logo Internal documents obtained by Canadian Press depict the severity of a Canadian National derailment that all but wiped out a river’s fish stocks (story at, CBC News). On August 5, 2005, a 114-car train derailed along the former BC Rail line near Squamish, British Columbia. Among the nine-car spill was a car containing 53,140 litres of corrosive sodium hydroxide, which ended up in the Cheakamus River. The result was a “near total sterilization” of about 17 kilometres of the river: a total of 500,000 fish were estimated to have been killed, and the river’s ecosystem — previously rich in steelhead, rainbow trout, and coho, pink and chinook salmon — will likely take decades to recover. CN is contributing to the recovery efforts, but says the documents are out of date — an assertion I have a hard time believing, since the documents say, among other things, that the steelhead run in 2025 will be one-quarter its normal level.

The problem was that this accident was likely a result of CN abandoning past BC Rail practice in that area, which is characterized by severe extremely twisty track. (CN bought BC Rail in 2003.) I covered this in my personal blog last year, and quoted the following excerpt from a Globe and Mail story from November 4, 2005:

Grant Young, former director of safety, rules and regulatory services for BC Rail, said the accidents indicate that something is wrong with CN’s operating procedures.

He said BC Rail restricted trains to two locomotives and fewer than 100 cars and had only two derailments in 15 years in the Cheakamus and Sunset Beach areas.

The train that crashed into the Cheakamus River in August, dumping a load of sodium hydroxide into the water, had 144 cars, pulled by five locomotives. …

Mr. Young said that if too much power is at the front, the engines can simply “straighten out the train” and pull it off the tracks.

Commenting on the 144-car train that crashed into the Cheakamus River, Mr. Young said in an e-mail: “BC Rail would never have allowed that train to operate in that manner as the outcome would have been totally predictable.”

All told, there were a total of four derailments in the area around Squamish and Cheakamus Canyon in the latter half of 2005. The federal government responded with a series of restricting the number of cars per train along the line.

So if you catch me making cracks about CN’s inability to keep trains on tracks, this is why.

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