Update: New Brunswick train crash, January, 2000

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N.B. rail firm tightens safety measures

By CHRIS MORRIS-- The Canadian Press

FREDERICTON (CP) -- A passenger-train crash in northeastern New Brunswick that sent 43 people to hospital two years ago should never happen again, says the company that owns and maintains the tracks where the derailment occurred.

Andre Rivard, spokesman for the New Brunswick East Coast Railway, said Wednesday the company has implemented maintenance and safety measures to prevent the kind of switching error that caused the accident.

"Every time an incident happens it brings to light some areas where you should improve," Rivard said.

"There's not a switch in our territory opened without permission. Everything is checked and double-checked."

Documents obtained under the federal Access to Information Act show that Transport Canada officials were concerned about several aspects of the operations of East Coast Railway, a subsidiary of Quebec Railway Corp. of Montreal which operates 350 kilometres of short-line tracks in New Brunswick.

The derailment of the Via Rail passenger train travelling from Montreal to Halifax took place on a cold, snowy night in January 2000, shortly after the train pulled out of the station at Miramichi, N.B.

Forty-two passengers were treated in hospital for minor injuries and one crew member was seriously hurt when he was scalded by water that gushed out of steam tables used in the buffet section of the dining car.

Investigators at the accident scene immediately identified the problem as a switch that was set and locked in the wrong position, sending the train hurtling onto a side track instead of the main track.

Minutes of a meeting held in Moncton, N.B., on Feb. 7, 2000, between Transport Canada officials and representatives of East Coast Railway and Via Rail highlight concerns about supervision, training and maintenance of switches by the railway company.

A memo from Dale Hicks, acting regional director for Transport Canada, to government officials states that at the time of the accident, East Coast Railway appeared to have no formalized supervision program for its crews.

"The two employees involved in the incident had just been certified as locomotive engineer and conductor back in November 1999, just three months prior to the incident," Hicks wrote in the memo.

"New Brunswick East Coast Railway could not verify to us whether or not either of these two employees had been supervised since being certified in their respective positions."

Hicks also said there seemed to be no formalized program to evaluate the condition of switch stands and targets and their visibility to train crews.

He noted that near the accident scene, the switch target -- a metal warning sign which alerts engineers if a switch has been changed off the main track -- had lost about 50 per cent of its reflective red paint.

"Add to that the fact snow conditions may limit visibility of 'dwarf' switches and compliance with track safety rules could be a concern," Hicks wrote.

Nevertheless, Hicks said East Coast Railway representatives seemed ready and willing to enact changes to make the New Brunswick track safer.

Rivard said safety management systems and formalized training and supervision programs are now in place.

"We have implemented good measures," he said. "Nothing like that (the Miramichi accident) should happen again."

A final report on the accident by the Transportation Safety Board is at least three months away.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), September 05, 2001

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