Union raises safety concerns following 3 B.C. derailments in under 2 months

Click to play video: 'Two CPKC train derailments in B.C. in two days'
Two CPKC train derailments in B.C. in two days
The Transportation Safety Board is now looking into two train derailments that happened in B.C. within two days. Both trains were operated by Canadian Pacific/Kansas City Railway. Kimberly Davidson reports – Feb 18, 2024

The union representing more than 9,000 rail workers across the country is raising concerns about safety following three freight train collisions in B.C. in less than two months.

Christopher Monette, public affairs director for Teamsters Canada, said the consequences of rail disasters can be deadly, with two of his members having recently received hospital treatment for injuries sustained in a derailment near Revelstoke last Friday.

“Every year across the country, there are hundreds of derailment cases of runaway trains, fires, explosions. And these incidents, they rarely make the news, but they happen,” he said.

“Since Lac-Mégantic for example, the rail disaster where a small town in Quebec was essentially wiped off the map, we’ve lost over 21 railway employees, most of whom are Teamster members, (and had) over 110 serious injuries.”

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Click to play video: 'North Delta train derailment cleanup process questioned'
North Delta train derailment cleanup process questioned

Railway safety was launched into the public spotlight in Canada after the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, which killed 47 people and forced the evacuation of about 100 others as the 16-car derailment came within 230 metres of a community school. It spilled tens of thousands of litres of crude into the ground and city sewer system, and burned out of control for at least 118 hours.

In 2023, 913 rail accidents were reported to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), compared with 1,008 the previous year. There were 67 fatalities and 45 serious injuries, compared to 65 and 58, respectively, in 2022.

The annual average number of accidents between 2018 and 2022 is 1,045, according to data provided by the TSB.

“I would be very hesitant, when we’re seeing so many of these incidents, to simply throw the blame on the little guy and call it operator error when we view this as a systemic issue,” Monette told Global News.

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He pointed fingers at both rail industry operators, CPKC and CN Rail, suggesting they “cut corners” on safety, and at the federal government.

“While inspections have been on an upward trend and things have been improving, the railway industry in Canada has largely been self-regulated.”

Click to play video: 'Train derails in North Delta early Sunday morning'
Train derails in North Delta early Sunday morning

His comments come days after back-to-back derailments in B.C.

Last Friday, two Canadian Pacific Kansas City Rail (CPKC) staffers were injured in a mainline derailment east of Revelstoke. The freight train carrying grain and coal collided with a stationary freight train on the tracks, although the cause of that collision remains under investigation.

The next day, TSB investigators were sent to Field in B.C. near the Alberta border, where some 14 cars derailed. In that incident, it also appears a moving train struck a stationary train on the mainline track.

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“We are still in the process of gathering information and assessing the occurrence for the Field investigation,” wrote Liam MacDonald of the TSB in an emailed statement.

“As for the occurrence near Revelstoke, although we did not deploy investigators to the site, we have classified the occurrence as a Class 3 investigation in accordance with our Policy on Occurrence Classification.”

A Class 3 investigation focuses on a small number of safety issues and may result in recommendations. They are typically completed within 450 days.

Click to play video: 'Five-car train derailment at Canadian Pacific Railyard in Port Coquitlam'
Five-car train derailment at Canadian Pacific Railyard in Port Coquitlam

Last weekend’s incidents took place less than two months after a derailment in North Delta in the Lower Mainland. On Nov. 19, several cars carrying “freight of all kinds” went off the tracks on the side of Highway 91 south of 64th Avenue, raising concerns about pollution from spilled diesel.

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“Safety is foundational to everything CPKC does,” it said in an emailed statement on Wednesday, adding that it has had the lowest frequency of train accidents that meet the threshold for Federal Railroad Administration reporting in the industry for the past 17 years in a row.

Global News has also reached out to the TSB and CN for additional comment about safety issues.

Meanwhile, Monette acknowledged operator fatigue is a “major problem” in the industry. Fatigue management has lingered on the TSB’s “watchlist” since 2016 as well.

“It is one area where rail companies could be doing a lot more and it poses a significant risk to the public,” the union representative said.

Click to play video: 'Alberta train derailment impacting traffic west of Wainwright'
Alberta train derailment impacting traffic west of Wainwright

Teamsters warned this week that a strike is imminent as it attempts to reach a new collective agreement with CN and CPKC for train conductors, engineers and yard workers. The companies have requested a federal mediator be appointed as negotiations stall.

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The union claims the employers want to “eliminate all safety-critical rest provisions” from collective agreements, which are critical to public safety.

CKPC said Teamsters has “grossly” misrepresented the facts regarding collective bargaining and created a “false narrative.” It claims its offers “do not create any risk to safety or employee wellbeing.”

The first renewed contract option includes “significant pay increases and improved work-life balance with scheduled, predictable days off through a dramatically simplified system,” it said by email.

“With the exception of our proposal amending the held away from home provision for train crews, the second option offers competitive wage increases that are consistent with recent settlements and maintains the status quo for work rules within the new Transport Canada regulatory framework for rest,” it wrote.

Click to play video: '‘Profits are running before people’s safety’: Lac-Mégantic demands greater rail safety 10 years after disaster'
‘Profits are running before people’s safety’: Lac-Mégantic demands greater rail safety 10 years after disaster

CN has said recent regulatory changes to rest provisions have made it harder to find available crews.

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“Our offer, which was refused by the union, guaranteed predictable schedules and consecutive days off for employees to specifically address work-rest balance, while keeping supply chains fluid,” spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said in an email to The Canadian Press earlier this week.

That proposal would see employees on a scheduled 40-hour work week, with at least 10 or 12 hours of rest between shifts — depending on whether they’re at home or away — and either two or three consecutive days off each week, in compliance with federal rules. Abecassis said the union’s demands would place stress on supply chains and more costs on consumers.

New rules came into effect last May that cap freight workers’ maximum shift length at 12 hours, down from 16. They also raised the minimum rest period between shifts to 10 hours at home and 12 hours when away from home, versus the previous six hours and eight hours, respectively.

In June, a Federal Court judge found Canadian Pacific guilty of contempt of court for employees working excessively long hours in 2018 and 2019. The railway vowed to appeal.

The current collective agreements go beyond what regulations require for rest, Monette said. For example, engineers — who drive the train — and conductors who oversee schedules and communication can limit their shift to 10 hours rather than the 12-hour ceiling stipulated under federal rules.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous advisory council at CN resigns, says company ‘missed the mark’ on reconciliation'
Indigenous advisory council at CN resigns, says company ‘missed the mark’ on reconciliation

Federal conciliators have been involved in negotiating nine of the 10 collective agreements since 1993 between Canadian Pacific and the train and yard workers represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, the railway noted.

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CPKC’s and CN’s notice of dispute starts the clock on a possible strike or lockout, which could occur as soon as 81 days after the request, in early May.

— with files from The Canadian Press

Editor’s Note: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misattributed a CPKC statement to CN. Global News regrets the error.

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