When a two-kilometre grain train ran away downhill, smashing into a B.C. mountainside last February and killing three crew, Transportation Safety Board officials quickly announced the crash wasn’t caused by anything the crew did.
But the mystery of what led to the crash of CP Rail Train 301 has lingered, leaving victims’ loved ones desperate for answers, and angry and suspicious.
“I hold CPR responsible. They killed those guys,” says Pam Fraser, mother of Dylan Paradis, the 33-year-old conductor killed in the crash.
“Their practices, their safety standards, their bottom line, to keep the trains rolling no matter what, killed my son and his crew mates. I want to hold them responsible.”
The Fifth Estate conducted a seven-month investigation, talking with witnesses, railroad workers, families and sources within police and government and uncovered a string of failures in the Train 301 tragedy, to be explored in a documentary Runaway Train airing on CBC-TV Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.
The program discovered a string of failures that, according to experts, warrants an investigation into potential criminal negligence by CP Rail.
Niki Atherton, who lived with engineer Andy Dockrell, says, “Is there a way to reopen that up again?
“There should be an ongoing investigation through the police if it’s criminal negligence. It should be investigated properly.”
Watch | ‘I hold CPR responsible,’ says Pam Fraser, mother of conductor:
While the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has power to issue findings and recommendations, it doesn’t lay charges or investigate potential criminal wrongdoing. The only formal police investigation was done by CP Rail’s own police service, but was allegedly shut down just one month after the crash, according to one of the officers assigned to the case.
These events have families of the crew who died calling for an outside police investigation.
CP Rail Police says they conducted a thorough investigation and concluded no charges were warranted. But they also say the scope of their inquiry was to determine actions of the crew members prior to the crash “regarding any outside factors that may have led or contributed to the incident itself.”
CP says it won’t comment on causes of the crash until the TSB delivers its findings, not expected for another year.
The Fifth Estate talked to dozens of witnesses and other sources inside CP Rail, the TSB, government and police to piece together what happened.
On Feb. 3, 2019, blowing snow and a –28 C temperature — colder with the wind chill — hit CP Rail’s main mountain line descending through the Spiral Tunnels in Yoho National Park to the hamlet of Field, B.C.
It was approaching 10 p.m. as Train 301, composed of 112 loaded grain cars and three locomotives, reached the top of the mountain.
The train began the steep, 20-kilometre decline down Field Hill, named for the railway village where a stop was planned and a new crew would come aboard.
But in the extreme cold, the engineer was having trouble controlling the train’s speed with the air brakes, according to the TSB.
Fearing a runaway, he applied the last emergency reserves of air pressure to bring the train to a screeching halt on the mountain.
The engineer and conductor contacted a CP manager for instructions. It isn’t known what was said in that conversation. In the end, no hand brakes were applied.
Instead, the crew set “retainers,” a temporary measure to hold the air brakes.
CP’s special policy for Field Hill calls for hand brakes on 75 per cent of rail cars stopped in an emergency “if abnormal conditions such as weather or poor braking train dictate.”
Hand brakes would have held the train. But applying them takes time, requiring a crew member to walk the length of the train to crank down the brakes on each car.
The manager summoned a replacement crew to take over because the emergency stop was about to push workers on 301 past their maximum allowable hours.
‘Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!’
But the changeover took a long time, according to sources who were there that night.
CP’s bunkhouse in Field was 20 minutes away by car.
The harsh weather had brought down power and telephone lines as well as cell service, plunging CP’s bunkhouse in Field into cold and darkness for 12 hours before the crash. Crews were stranded, unable to get proper meals and rest as they huddled around a kitchen gas stove for warmth.
When a van arrived to drive the replacement crew up the mountain, the men were taken by surprise. They asked for their two-hour notice to allow more time to get ready.
By the time the new crew arrived at the train and took over, 301 had been sitting for almost three hours.
After a job briefing with the manager, the relief crew began work on the train. Andy Dockrell, the engineer, took the controls while conductor Dylan Paradis and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer stepped off, about to apply the hand brakes.
But 301 suddenly started to roll on its own, gradually picking up speed.
The crew clambered aboard.
“Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!” the veteran engineer called over the radio.
Van driver Rob Marshall was still sitting next to the tracks when the train started to roll.
“All of a sudden you hear on the radio ‘The train’s out of control.’ And then, from where I was sitting — I watched the train fly by,” Marshall said.
“I’m thinking, ‘Good God Almighty!’ This train could derail and kill these people that I just drove up here.”
In Field, workers told CBC, crews evacuated the bunkhouse, fearing the runaway might roll into town and strike a second train of loaded tanker cars blocking the line.
Rail traffic control radioed crews to move it.
Watch | Rob Marshall describes the train starting to roll:
“If it had hit a fuel car or something, it could have blown up and caused a major disaster,” said Marshall, likening it to the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013 that killed 47 people.
“it would have blown up the whole valley, and it would have been like another Quebec scenario. Pretty insane.”
But Train 301 never made it that far.
Dockrell’s last words heard on the radio declared the train had hit 57 m.p.h. (92 km/h) on a stretch where the limit is 15 m.p.h. (24 km/h).
And then silence.
A tearful rail traffic control dispatcher repeatedly called out: “RTC to Train 301 … do you copy?”
There was no response.
Rescuer braves icy water
CP track workers nearby raced to the scene.
They discovered 301’s lead locomotive had flown off the track at a steep turn mid-mountain, landing overturned in the Kicking Horse River, with 99 grain cars crumpled in a pileup behind.
Dockrell was thrown from the locomotive and killed instantly.
Waldenberger-Bulmer was found in the river.
“He was still breathing,” said Marshall, recounting how a track worker raced into the frigid water in a failed attempt to save him.
“She was super courageous for staying there and being by this guy’s side.”
The conductor, Paradis, was found crushed to death in the locomotive cab.
Former CP officer suspects ‘coverup’
Emergency officials, including employees of Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board and the local RCMP, provided assistance.
But because the crash happened on railway property, the CP Police Service took control of the scene and launched a criminal investigation. While employed by the corporation, CP police officers have the same powers as every other police officer in Canada.
Mark Tataryn, one of three CPPS officers assigned to investigate, says supervisors directed him to keep the investigation narrowly focused on the crew, and shut it down one month after the crash when he began to question CP management’s role.
Tataryn says several questions remain unanswered, including whether there was “negligence on the part of the company.”
CP police tell CBC that Tataryn was a “disgruntled employee,” and that he was facing an internal conduct investigation when he resigned.
CP police say they concluded Tataryn “knowingly, negligently or recklessly made false, misleading or inaccurate statements in a CPPS report.” Tataryn disputes that and says he quit to accept a job with the RCMP.
CP Rail’s CEO Keith Creel says CPPS is not the only police service with jurisdiction in the case.
“We’ve worked in lockstep with the RCMP from the very beginning,” Creel said.
However, the RCMP says they are not investigating.
“The incident occurred on CP property; as such, that agency has jurisdiction,” an RCMP spokesperson wrote in an email. “No independent investigation was commenced by the RCMP.”
The RCMP added that they “of course would be willing” to step in if asked.
CBC’s investigation has found Field Hill has been the scene of 25 derailments and runaways in the last 25 years, including an incident on Jan. 14 where a rail car rolled away for more than six kilometres before derailing.
The day before the crash of Train 301, Dockrell had a nearly identical problem on a different grain train coming down the same hill.
Dockrell filled out a “safety hazard report” documenting the brake problem, CBC has learned.
The next day, investigators found the crumpled paper in the wreckage.
CP workers filed more than a dozen similar reports to CP’s joint union-management health and safety committee in recent years. They document a range of concerns — from problems in the cold, to poorly maintained grain trains with failing brakes, to issues specific to Field Hill.
A current CP Rail conductor wonders why the trains were even running, given the weather.
“They could just say, ‘No, we’re shutting the grain trains down until the weather warms up,’ one CP railroader said. “Did they do it? No. What happened? We killed three people. Wow.”
CBC agreed to keep his identity confidential as he fears being fired if caught talking to the media.
He says the extreme cold in the mountains is a known risk for CP operations. “Cold weather. Older cars. Rubber shrinking. It all is a recipe for disaster.”
CP’s manuals detail how in winter “cold weather increases air leakage in a train’s air brake system,” calling it a “major challenge.”
Days after the crash, the TSB discovered problems with the air brakes on Train 301’s rail cars.
Of the 112 grain hoppers, 13 cars remained undamaged and upright on the tracks.
TSB tested them on a similar steep grade, in temperatures between -18 C and -24 C. Brakes on all 13 cars were found to be incapable of holding the train on the hill, and the TSB issued a warning to Transport Canada to take action.
2 railroads conduct an inspection blitz
CP and Transport Canada have both known for some time that current inspections required by government are failing to catch deficiencies.
“Many cars with zero or very low brake effectiveness” are not being detected, said a 2018 study by the National Research Council.
Immediately after the crash, CN and CP Rail conducted a more concentrated inspection blitz of the aging fleet of government-owned grain cars like those involved in the crash and discovered widespread problems, pulling thousands out of service for repairs, retiring more than 500 of them permanently.
When approached by CBC at a railroad conference in San Diego Jan. 6, Creel declined to comment on specifics of the crash until the TSB investigation is complete.
“If we’ve made mistakes then we’ll own our mistakes and we’ll commit to learning and growing from those mistakes,” Creel said. “Anything that needs to be changed to make sure that in the future we don’t have any other families that had to experience that same tragedy, I’m [committed] to doing that.”
Watch | CEO Keith Creel says CP Rail is willing to work with the RCMP:
Immediately following the derailment, CP Rail adopted more stringent instructions for crews to apply a number of hand brakes to all trains parked in “emergency” on steep hills.
Transport Canada wasn’t satisfied and issued an order demanding an even higher number of hand brakes.
CP is appealing that order, but won’t discuss why.
Negligence, obstruction suggested
CBC presented its findings to legal and safety experts.
“There’s a compelling case on the facts of criminal negligence, corporate criminal negligence,” said veteran lawyer Leo McGrady.
“Terminating the investigation a month into the investigation when all of this material wasn’t covered — that generates huge suspicions in itself as an additional act of obstruction, so in my view it’s a very serious act of obstructing justice.”
Rob Stewart, a workplace facilities specialist who is consulting with the TSB, said a criminal investigation is needed.
He said it’s unclear which police service could step in, since the accident happened on CP land in a national park.
“We have all this confusion going on. The question then becomes … who is supposed to be doing this? Which police service? CP, local RCMP, federal RCMP? Going back to the attorney general?”
‘I don’t trust CP to police itself’
Pam Fraser, mother of conductor Dylan Paradis, is calling on authorities to reopen a criminal investigation.
“I don’t trust CP to police itself,” she said.
“What of all these major corporations in the world, that police themselves, ever do an honest and truly investigative job? I simply don’t have any faith.”