Backgrounder - Safety Action Taken Following the Train Derailment into the Cheakamus River in 2005

On August 5, 2005, a Canadian National (CN) freight train proceeding northward from Squamish to Lillooet, British Columbia, experienced an emergency brake application on the Squamish Subdivision. Nine cars, including a tank car load of sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, derailed across the bridge over the Cheakamus River. Approximately 40 000 litres of caustic soda spilled into the river, killing many fish and causing extensive environmental damage. There were no injuries.

On October 7, 2005, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) sent a Rail Safety Advisory (RSA 09/05) to Transport Canada (TC) concerning the marshalling and operation of distributed power trains on the Squamish Subdivision. The RSA stated that, in consideration of the safety-critical nature of operating instructions, and the recent acquisition of this territory by CN, TC might wish to review and assess CN's equipment handling, train length and tonnage instructions to ensure they are adequate for safe train operation over the sharp curvature and steep mountain grades on the former BC Rail (BCR) territory.

In response, TC indicated that it had already performed a targeted inspection of CN and that, in late October, it issued a Notice and Order to CN to revise its train handling instructions for the line. Additionally, in early December 2005, other Notices and Orders were issued further restricting operations on the line. A new Notice and Order was issued on March 6, 2006 and is still in effect. The Notice and Order requires that any operating instructions, whether new or revised, be agreed upon by TC and the railway. TC Railway Safety inspectors from the Pacific Region, as part of their compliance activities, continue to monitor the railway's operations to ensure that levels of compliance are maintained.

CN took positive action to develop safer procedures for distributed power train operations. It provided new training for four supervisors who prepared a revised distributed power training module for use in the ALERT (Advanced Locomotive Engineer Refresher Training) program. All locomotive engineers on the Squamish Subdivision received this training. In addition, the four mechanical staff at Vancouver were retrained in distributed power setup.

This occurrence was the first of four similar derailments involving long, empty, distributed power trains that occurred on the Squamish Subdivision between August 5 and December 5, 2005. While some circumstances differed, the common feature of all four derailments was that the trains stringlined to the low rail, or inside of sharp curves. The stringlining occurred due to high lateral forces creating a high lateral/vertical ratio, wheel lift and derailment.

The public report R05V0141, communiqué, speech and photos are also available on this site.