Several years ago, veteran BC Rail conductor Donald Faulkner criticized the privatization of the railway in letters to editors. He feared that privatization meant the company would no longer listen to the advice – and warnings – of its employees, and this could make their jobs more dangerous. On June 29, 2006, he was one of two men killed when their train derailed on “the big hill” north of Lillooet, British Columbia, on a section of track belonging to CN Rail.
CN is a former Crown corporation that bought BC Rail. CN tracks had few steep grades to tackle, so many of its locomotives were not equipped with dynamic brakes, which use traction motors to help slow down heavy trains on steep grades.
The locomotive that derailed on June 29, killing Faulkner and conductor Tom Down was not equipped with dynamic brakes and was going down “one of the trickiest pieces of railway in North America,” according to the Smithers Interior News. “The grade is steep, and there are many sharp curves as the rail line twists its way downward from the Cariboo Plateau to the Fraser River.”
The newspaper added that “Faulkner and other employees have maintained, ever since BC Rail was sold to CN, that the new owner needed to listen to employees to find out how best to operate the line. However, CN quickly dismissed many of those employees and changed operating patterns.”
This isn’t the first time derailments have occurred along this stretch of track, or the first time engineers have requested locomotives equipped with dynamic brakes. Last fall, a train derailed near Squamish spilling 40,000 litres of corrosive sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River.
However, Transport Canada did not require dynamic brakes on this section of the line – until earlier this month when it ordered CN “to use dynamic brake-equipped locomotives in the Lillooet area as an added safety precaution…until the causes and contributing factors of this tragic accident can be determined.”
Both CN Rail and the national Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the accident. CN Rail recently posted a first-quarter profit of $362-million, up 21 per cent over last year’s first-quarter profit.