Canadian union backs government handbrake rule under appeal by railroads

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OTTAWA — Days after Canada’s two Class 1 railroads announced they would appeal a government order requiring the use of handbrakes on trains stopped on mountains grades, one of the county’s largest unions says it’s standing by the Crown.

Last month, Transport Canada announced a new rule requiring the application of handbrakes on trains in mountainous territory following an emergency use of air brakes. The new rule came as the result of a fatal derailment on Canadian Pacific’s Kicking Horse Pass [see “Three dead in CP derailment in British Columbia,” Trains News Wire, Feb. 4, 2019]. Last week, CP and Canadian National announced that they would protest the new rule, arguing that “safer options are available.” [See “CP, CN to appeal Canadian government rule on use of handbrakes,” Trains News Wire, March 9, 2019]

But officials with the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference — the labor group that represented the three railroaders killed near Field, B.C., on Feb. 4 — say the railroads are wrong and that the government’s rule should stand. The union immediately endorsed the rule when it was announced days after the wreck.

“Teamsters believe the government’s order should remain in place until we have more information. At this stage, it is impossible to make an informed decision on whether or not there are safer alternatives to handbrakes,” spokesperson Christopher Monette tells Trains News Wire. “The investigation into the Field derailment is still ongoing and there are still many unanswered questions. We urge all decision-makers to err on the side of caution until we know more.”

All Canadian railroads are required to continue following the new rule until the government has reviewed the appeal. The Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada will set a date for a hearing on the motion, according to a spokesperson for Transport Canada.

But not everyone in labor agrees with the rule. John Risch, National Legislative Director of SMART Transportation, North America’s largest rail trade union, says he’s concerned about the dangers of having crewmembers applying dozens of handbrakes in harsh conditions.

"It can be very hazardous to apply dozens of hand brakes when a train is stopped on the side of a mountain in deep snow. Then the crew must release them before proceeding in sometimes terrible weather conditions,” Risch tells Trains News Wire.    

Risch says he believes the only way to prevent incidents like the one that happened in British Columbia last month is the adoption of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brake technology.

“We urge Transport Canada and the [U.S. Federal Railroad Administration] to order the phase in of ECP brakes across North America. ECP brakes will protect train and engine service employees from these unnecessary deaths and protect the communities in which trains pass through,” Risch says.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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