No one was hurt when a passenger train stopped on the tracks near Debert, N.S. last week, but according to a VIA Rail employee, the incident may have been more serious than the company has revealed.
Around 5 p.m. on March 20, the train carrying 77 passengers from Halifax to Montreal was forced to stop after striking “debris” on the Springhill Sub, said VIA Rail in a statement at the time.
But the insider claims there was no debris involved, only sub-standard maintenance work on the track which is owned by Canadian National (CN).
The VIA staffer, who requested anonymity to protect his job, said CN had recently performed work on the track’s tie plates in the area. But the maintenance workers, either belonging to CN or contracted by CN, stacked the plates too high for the train to clear, he alleged.
“They become projectiles,” he described in an exclusive interview with Global News. “And there’s pipes and all kinds of mechanicals that are not far off the ground… there might be 10 inches of clearance between the rail bed and the bottom of the train.”
The source said the train “could have easily derailed.”
The source said the heavy metal tie plates caused serious damage to a number of the cars, whose damage he speculated as ranging in the millions of dollars.
In its media statement last week, VIA Rail said the incident resulted in “a fuel leak and damages to some exterior windows.”
Canadian National confirmed in an email on Monday that it was performing maintenance work on the tie plates in the area, but “the maintenance work is still ongoing and is performed to industry standard.”
“The cause of the incident is still under investigation so we won’t comment any further,” wrote spokesperson Alexandre Boulé, when asked whether CN’s maintenance work was part of VIA Rail’s inquiry into the incident.
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Canadian National would not answer questions about when the work was done, whether it had worked on the section of track where the train stopped, or whether the work had been contracted out.
VIA also declined to comment on this story, citing the ongoing investigation. In particular, it would not answer questions about what kind of “debris” it says was on the track, what role CN has in the investigation, or whether the track is now operational.
“As the investigation is still ongoing, we have no updates at this point,” said corporate communications director Marie-Anna Murat in emailed comments.
The VIA Rail insider said he reached out to Global News because he was uncomfortable with the company’s messaging around the incident.
“Debris in the tracks leaves it open to speculation and it just smells of secrecy,” he said. “I’m proud of my company – I am – I love working there but I don’t want people to fear danger of being on the train. This was an outside influence that impacted our operation.”
VIA Rail could not have foreseen the improper maintenance work, he added, and it’s due to crew expertise that the train was stopped safely without injury.
The federal Transportation Safety Board said in an email that it is “aware” of the incident and “still assessing” in advance of deciding whether to launch its own investigation.