Site of fatal British Columbia derailment has challenged CP for more than a century

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CP maintenance workers remove ice from the walls of a Spiral Tunnel to prevent damage to passing trains.
Canadian Pacific
FIELD, British Columbia – This week’s fatal derailment in British Columbia that took the lives of three railroaders is not the first time tragedy has struck Canadian Pacific’s rugged Laggan Subdivision.

Kicking Horse Pass, home the CP’s iconic Spiral Tunnels and known to local railroaders as “The Big Hill,” has been the site of numerous derailments and runaways in the past century. In fact, one of the first construction trains to descend the grade when it was completed in 1884, derailed along the Kicking Horse River, killing three people.

“This is one of the most challenging railroad territories in all of North America,” says James Carmichael, a senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada that is looking into Monday’s derailment.

The grain train that derailed in the early morning hours of Feb. 4 had three locomotives – one leading, one in the middle and one on the rear – and 112 covered hoppers. According to investigators, the train was parked with the emergency brakes applied at Partridge siding east of the Upper Spiral Tunnel for about two hours before a new crew took over the train. Normally, crew changes take place 8 miles west at Field. Investigators did not explain why the emergency brakes were applied or why the crew change happened at Partridge during a press conference on Tuesday.

Soon after the new crew boarded the train, it “started to move on its own.” The crew was unable to slow or stop the train, which rolled for two miles before derailing between the Upper and Lower Spiral Tunnels.

According to investigators, 99 cars derailed in three different locations. The lead locomotive derailed on a bridge and fell into the Kicking Horse River, killing all three crew members. According to CP officials, the three-person crew included conductor Dylan Paradis, engineer Andrew Dockrell, and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer. All three men were from the Calgary area.

Investigators are currently trying to get information out of the locomotives’ event records to determine how fast the train was going when it derailed. The speed limit through the Spiral Tunnels is 20 mph.

The route over Kicking Horse Pass was first constructed in 1884 and at one point featured a 4.5 percent grade from the Wapata Lake near the Alberta-British Columbia border and Field. Runaways on the steep route were common and at least three runaway spurs were built on the hill. The switches were lined for the spurs and were only switched to the main when an engineer whistled off to inform a waiting switchman that the train was under control.

In 1909, CP completed the Spiral Tunnels that reduced the grade through Kicking Horse Pass to 2.2 percent.

But even with the easier grade, railroading on “The Big Hill” is still a challenging proposition and derailments and mishaps have occurred throughout the decades. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has investigated at least three incidents on the Laggan Subdivision between Partridge and Field in the last 23 years.

In April 1996, a westbound train going through the Spiral Tunnels went into emergency as the result of a loss of radio communication between the locomotives on the head-end of the train and two remote locomotives in the middle of the trains. The train’s air was depleted after multiple brake applications and instead of restoring the air pressure while the train was stopped, the engineer decided to do so on the move. As the train continued through the Lower Spiral Tunnel, the engineer lost control and it rolled for four miles until coming to a stop at Field. No one was injured and no equipment was damaged.

In December 1997, a westbound train was put into emergency near Partridge due to a “series of inappropriate train handling decisions.” The crew decided to restore the air brakes while moving and try to use the dynamic brakes to control the train as it descended the grade. The engineer lost control of the train near the Upper Spiral Tunnel and applied the emergency brakes but was unable to stop. The rear end of the train uncoupled from the head end and 16 cars derailed inside the Upper Spiral Tunnel. The head end of the train continued downhill and hit speeds of 50 miles per hour. Another 50 cars derailed at which point the motive power broke free and the engineer was able to get the locomotives under control and continue to Field. No one was injured. The TSB investigation attributed the derailment to poor train handling, crew fatigue and an unfamiliarity of the new General Electric AC4400 locomotive.

On Jan. 3, 15 cars of a westbound train derailed inside the Upper Spiral Tunnel. The cause of that derailment is still under investigation.

On Monday, CP president and CEO Keith Creel called the derailment a “tragedy” and vowed to figure out what caused a train to derail while descending Kicking Horse Pass.

“This is a tragedy that will have a long-lasting impact on our family of railroaders,” Creel said in a statement late Monday. “The incident is under investigation and we will not speculate at this time on a cause – we owe it to those involved to get it right.”
SpiralTunnelsoverview
Canadian Pacific's twin Spiral Tunnels near Field, B.C., opened in 1909, reducing the grade to a maximum of 2.2 percent, compared with 4.4 percent before their opening.
Canadian Pacific

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