Saturday, February 10, 2007 at 8:14 pm

CN’s Safety Record Gets on Television

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CN logo Not a good day to be CN. W-Five, CTV’s investigative journalism program, takes a hard look at CN’s safety record in tonight’s edition, in a piece called “Off the Rails,” which I have just finished watching. If you’ve been following CN’s record of newsworthy train accidents — and yes, there have been a few — then much will be familiar: the Lake Wabamun and Cheakamus Canyon spills were highlighted, as were more recent (though less severe) derailments in Montmagny, Quebec and Lytton, B.C. What’s devastating is bringing them all together, with the personal accounts of former CN employees, their complaints about safety and maintenance prior to accidents, and — in one case — a very vivid on-site demonstration of how poor the shape of some of CN’s track is.

The charge against CN is that it ignores employees’ safety concerns, and there are essentially two main elements. One is a lack of maintenance: track and engines in poor condition. The other is procedural, and pertains specifically to the former BC Rail track in central British Columbia. After CN bought BC Rail, it was running engines without dynamic brakes — “prairie engines” — on a mountainous line with steeper grades than anywhere else in CN’s network. It confirms what I had heard anecdotally: that CN, lacking mountain experience itself (its original track in B.C. is surprisingly flat), disregarded the experience of old BC Rail hands and blundered its way into disaster. As the program put it, they “brought their flatland practices to the mountains.” (CN has since been ordered to use dynamic brakes on that line.)

Interesting: Transport Canada did a safety audit of CN, but it cannot be released without CN’s consent, which CN is (naturally) withholding.

Meanwhile, in its own defence, CN’s off-camera response to the W-Five investigation was a tepid seven-page letter (PDF), the gist of which was that they had gotten better since then. (CN had 103 derailments in Canada in 2005, 76 in 2006.) No direct reply to the accusation that they had scrimped on maintenance, or they did so to improve their bottom line (an accusation that, actually, the program was rather weak on), only that they were committed to improving their safety record.

Previously: Avalanche Hits CN Coal Train; Lytton Accident: Photos and Video; CN Train Derails in Quebec; Minimal Long-term Impact of Lake Wabamun Spill: Report; CN Derailment Strands Crew Overnight; Train Accident Roundup; Internal Documents Reveal Extent of CN Accident’s Devastation; Train Accidents: Fewer Humans, More Error; CN Fined $75,000 for McBride Accident; Two More CN Derailments; What’s Up with CN?

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