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Poor track condition and maintenance deficiencies led to the May 2014 derailment of a Canadian National train near Fort Frances, Ontario
Richmond Hill, Ontario, 16 March 2016 — In its investigation report (R14W0137) released today, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) determined that poor track conditions, and delays in maintenance activities led to the derailment of a Canadian National (CN) train near Fort Frances, Ontario. There were no injuries, and 500 feet of track was destroyed.
On 23 May 2014, a CN freight train was travelling from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Chicago, Illinois, along the Fort Frances Subdivision. While operating on a descending grade approaching Fort Frances, the train crew observed a track misalignment at Mile 93.38. The train crew made a full service application of the automatic train air brakes and moved the locomotive dynamic brake (DB), a secondary electrical braking system that provides resistance against the rotation of the locomotive axles, to position 5 just prior to reaching the track misalignment. The crew further increased DB as the train passed over the misaligned track. About 40 seconds later, a train-initiated emergency brake application occurred and the train slowed to a stop. Subsequent inspection determined that 35 freight cars had derailed. The derailed equipment included two tank cars loaded with molten sulfur, one of which was punctured, released product and started a small grass fire which burned itself out.
The investigation determined that the derailment occurred when the track misalignment at mile 93.38 buckled sharply beneath the train. The track structure near the derailment was in poor condition with defective ties, fouled ballast, and ineffective rail anchoring. The train brake applications imparted additional compressive forces into an already weakened track structure. A significant increase in traffic and tonnage had accelerated track deterioration and maintenance programs were delayed. At the derailment location, freight trains were operating at 50 mph on track that only met the standards for 25 mph operation.
The investigation also identified that CN did not consistently apply its Engineering Track Standards while Transport Canada’s (TC) inspection and enforcement activities did not ensure timely maintenance action. Despite CN company maintenance and TC’s regulatory inspection activities prior to the accident, the weakened track structure had not been adequately addressed and speed reductions were not applied.
Following the occurrence, TC issued a Notice and Order to limit speeds and increase track inspections between Mile 90.1 and 1142.8 of the Fort Frances Subdivision. For its part, CN conducted additional track inspections with professional engineers and installed new ties between Mile 87.0 and 143.6 of the same track. Once TC was satisfied with the corrective measures taken, the Notice and Order was revoked.
Finally, this track met the criteria for a key route which was subject to additional safety measures, including a formal risk assessment. Following the Lac-Mégantic investigation, the TSB Board recommended that “the Department of Transport set stringent criteria for the operation of trains carrying dangerous goods, and require railway companies to conduct route planning and analysis as well as perform periodic risk assessments to ensure that risk control measures work” (R14-02). While CN’s risk assessment for this corridor and its engineering processes took into account a number of factors, the mitigating strategies in place were insufficient.
The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.
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