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‘So many incidents’: Former drivers say Columbia Icefield tour buses fraught with safety issues, poor maintenance

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WATCH: Former drivers say Columbia Icefield tour buses frought with safety issues, poor maintenance – Jul 24, 2020

An Ice Explorer rolled on the icefield on July 18, killing three people and injuring 24 others. The cause of that crash is under investigation.

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The drivers of the Ice Explorers spoke to Global News this week about the maintenance inconsistencies and alarming safety issues they said they saw, and watched go ignored, while working there during the 2018 season. Global News has agreed to withhold their identities for fear of career repercussions.

Pre-trip inspection issues ignored for weeks

Both drivers, one man and one woman, said at the start of each shift, they were required to do a pre-trip inspection of their vehicle where they’d check for things like leaks or problems with the air brake system.

Issues were logged in Daily Vehicle Inspection Reports, or DVIRs, and according to the drivers, they were consistently ignored by Pursuit. Often, the same vehicles would have the same issues reported day after day. Global News has not independently verified these inspection reports.

“They would get them to sort of what they deemed to be a… minimum level of acceptable safety and then they’d operate,” the male driver said.

He said the mechanics would review the pre-trip inspections, but were never given enough time to do the work, because the company wanted the buses to stay in service, taking guests on their pre-booked adventures.

Read more: Crews working to remove tour bus involved in fatal Jasper rollover

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“I would say like 80 per cent of the time, if you noticed a problem and as long as it was somewhat within the realm of safety, they would operate the bus,” he said.

“So many, many, many times I would write down things and the pre-trip inspection and they just wouldn’t get addressed for weeks.”

The driver said the issues ranged from coolant and oil leaking from the vehicles — both onto the parking lots and the glacier itself — to inconsistencies with the air pressure in the tires, which were meant to be purposely low to allow them to grip on the rocks and ice.

The female driver told Global News improper tire pressure was a “constant issue” that drivers would log in their DVIRs that “just doesn’t get fixed by mechanics.”

Click to play video 'Jasper tour bus removed as fatal Columbia Icefields crash investigation continues' Jasper tour bus removed as fatal Columbia Icefields crash investigation continues
Jasper tour bus removed as fatal Columbia Icefields crash investigation continues – Jul 22, 2020

Another issue raised by the drivers was the tire treads were often not thick enough to give the buses the proper traction on the rocks and ice, meaning drivers would struggle up and down the moraine or when travelling on the glacier.

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“It’s just really frustrating when you’re like, ‘I know the problem, managers don’t seem to care, I’ve raised this with them and I’m getting paid almost minimum wage with 56 people under my responsibility,” she said. “I just feel for this poor driver whose life has just been traumatized and changed forever.”

The male driver said the buses were all in varying states of disrepair, equating them to “your uncle’s project car that he works on twice a year.”

Read more: ‘I just miss my girlfriend so much’: partner of Jasper bus crash victim calls for increased safety

Foremost, the current manufacturers of the buses, told Global News the bus involved in the incident was built in 1999, and was made by a predecessor.

In an emailed statement to Global News, Pursuit said “we stand by our 39 years of operation where we have safely guided over 16 million passengers across this terrain and pride ourselves on our commitment to training, and passenger safety, and our strong track record of safety.”

“Pursuit is actively supporting a transparent and comprehensive multi-agency investigation into the cause of this tragic accident. The results of this investigation, once completed, will be shared with the public.”

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Injured Columbia Icefield bus crash survivor coping with deaths and injuries of loved ones – Jul 21, 2020

The drivers both said they had close calls while passengers were on board, including instances of buses sliding down the glacier and failed brakes.

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One of the drivers described a “very scary” incident where he was travelling down the steep moraine headed to the glacier when his transmission lock brakes failed.

He said he had to think fast and continue down using only the air brakes to slow the massive machine.

“I went through all of my air in my tanks and managed to keep the bus from going out of control. We reached the bottom of the moraine and and all my sensors were blowing up and screaming at me,” he said.

“I literally couldn’t have gone any further because I had nothing left in my brakes.

“Luckily, we were at the bottom of the hill and I managed to keep it under control.”

Passenger safety an afterthought

The drivers said they were told to make a joke with passengers about fastening their seatbelts as a means of distracting them as the drivers radioed to the dispatch centre to let them know they were heading down the moraine, to avoid any collisions with another vehicle.

“It was a bad joke to begin with, because obviously you shouldn’t be joking around safety, but when something like this happens, it obviously changes,” he said.

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Read more: No evidence of rockslide in Jasper tour bus crash; ages and hometowns of victims released

Both drivers also said that while they’d give an emergency exit speech to passengers at the start of each ride, the state of the buses meant “there were definitely some buses that the windows were broken and the exit windows wouldn’t open one way.”

Drivers were underprepared, encouraged to work long hours

The male driver said looking back, he feels they were underprepared for the realities of the vehicles they were driving.

“We never got any sort of evacuation protocol training, we never got any sort of engine failure training,” he said. “It’s preposterous now thinking about it because it’s something that every transportation company should be doing.

The female driver also said she felt the training was inadequate.

“I’m Australian, I haven’t really driven on icy roads before,” she said.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever driven a truck or bus like this. [There are] different factors that come into play that obviously things if go bad, you’re not really that equipped to deal with it.”
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Read more: 1 victim of Jasper tour bus rollover identified as northern Saskatchewan woman

According to Alberta Transportation, Parks Canada is responsible for the enforcement of off-road vehicles within the park, and they can’t be driven on the highways.

When asked multiple times about the regulation and enforcement of the buses, Parks Canada refused to comment, only saying Saturday’s fatal crash is under investigation by the RCMP and it is cooperating.

Click to play video 'Investigation into deadly sightseeing bus rollover at Columbia Icefields near Jasper' Investigation into deadly sightseeing bus rollover at Columbia Icefields near Jasper
Investigation into deadly sightseeing bus rollover at Columbia Icefields near Jasper – Jul 20, 2020