Canadian Pacific, Teamsters have sharply diverging reactions to train accident documentary

A photograph of a train with tall mountains in the background.

Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) and union officials are at odds over a documentary and reports produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) in which the network explored the events surrounding a February 2019 fatal accident involving a CP train — including questions about how the investigation was handled. The documentary aired Sunday.

It was part of CBC’s weekly investigative news program, The Fifth Estate. The documentary entailed a seven-month investigation by CBC and sought to address allegations by a former CP employee who said the company thwarted his efforts to investigate certain aspects of the accident, according to CBC’s article about the documentary. The former employee was part of CP’s police service, which is a fully authorized federal force but under the direction of CP. The former employee now works for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), the Feb. 4, 2019, accident involved a westbound train heading for Vancouver that derailed near Field, British Columbia. All three members of the train crew died. The train consisted of 112 covered hopper cars and three locomotives, of which 99 cars and two locomotives derailed.

The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, a labor union representing rail employees in Canada, said the RCMP should be involved in the investigation.

“Given the controversy surrounding the criminal investigation into this tragedy, it’s obvious that we must involve the RCMP. Every effort must be made to uncover the root causes and to ensure this never happens again,” said Lyndon Isaak, president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference.

The Teamsters’ parent organization also called for an independent investigation by the RCMP into the accident, and it pressed the federal government again to stop allowing corporate police forces.

“Corporate police forces have no place in the modern world. It is absurd that a company should be able to criminally investigate itself. They’ll never find themselves guilty of anything. We once again call on the government of Canada to abolish all forms of private policing,” said Teamsters Canada President François Laporte.

But CP said the RCMP has been an active participant in the accident investigation, calling the CBC reports inaccurate. The railway said the RCMP was on-site at the incident immediately and that it has the legal authority and jurisdiction to conduct an investigation.

“As presented by the CBC, this statement is both false and misleading,” said Keith Creel, CP’s president and CEO. “The way the stories are framed is both disgraceful and sensational. The RCMP can investigate whatever it sees fit in Canada, and they have been involved from the very beginning. As I said to CBC previously, we are open and willing to discuss anything with the RCMP, the TSB and all other agencies involved. We have been cooperating fully and will continue to do so.”

The RCMP didn’t return a request for comment.

The TSB is still investigating the accident as a lead investigator. The TSB issued two rail safety advisories related to the accident last April. It didn’t return a request for comment about the documentary and the CBC reports or about the accident itself.

One advisory suggested that Transport Canada ensure effective safety procedures for trains needing to make emergency stops while in steep declines.

Another recommended that “given the potential consequences when uncontrolled movements occur, particularly in mountain territory,” Transport Canada should “review the efficacy of the inspection and maintenance procedures for grain hopper cars used in CP’s unit grain train operations (and for other railways as applicable), and ensure that these cars can be operated safely at all times.”

That advisory said the train crew in February’s accident was unable to keep the train at or under a maximum authorized speed of 15 mph despite progressively applying air brakes, dynamic brakes and emergency air brakes.

That advisory also noted that when the TSB was examining the 13 hopper cars that did not derail, the cars failed a test that looked at their air braking system. The test occurred when the ambient temperatures ranged between −21°C and −26°C, which could have affected test results.

Since the accident, Transport Canada has ordered all railway companies to use hand brakes if a train has used its emergency brakes to stop it from descending or ascending a mountain grade. A mountain grade has a steepness grade of 1.8% or higher.

CP will release its fourth-quarter earnings before the financial markets open on Wednesday.