Freight derailments hobble national passenger rail; track quality questioned

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Update: Via announced on April 8 that it is resuming train service between Winnipeg and Toronto on April 10.

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On Saturday, March 7, a tanker car train carrying crude oil derailed near Gogama in northern Ontario and caught fire. It was the second derailment near Gogama in a month.

The crash immediately halted freight train service and the Winnipeg to Toronto section of Via Rail’s cross-country passenger train, The Canadian. Freight was rolling again on Tuesday, March 10, using a temporary slow-speed setup. But 10 days later, passenger service for Winnipeg-Toronto still isn’t running, and Via Rail has no estimate on when it will return.

Via, in a statement posted to its website, says it can’t run the Winnipeg-Toronto leg “due to unfavourable operating conditions for passenger trains.”

CN has imposed a 10 mile an hour speed limit through the crash area, and a 35 mile an hour limit for trains of more than 20 cars carrying “flammable liquid product” on much its track through northern Ontario for 60 days. Those restrictions mean Via can’t “maintain the integrity of its schedule and would result in significantly longer trip times.”

The Winnipeg-Toronto trip usually takes about two days. A train leaving Winnipeg on a Thursday night arrives in Toronto on Saturday morning.

I have detected no outrage about this. That, unfortunately, underscores how little the cross-country service is valued in Canada. The Vancouver-Winnipeg leg of The Canadian is still running. But people who have booked cross-country journeys, or just Winnipeg-Toronto, have to find alternatives on their own. Via is not offering help on that score, apart from providing fare refunds.

The fiery derailment does a good bit of harm to Via Rail’s efforts to depict The Canadian as a scenic, safe, relaxing, reliable way to travel and see the country. Apart from the fear of getting stranded because one plugged rail line is enough to shut down a national route, there’s the worry of having all those tanker cars carrying flammable cargo using the same track as the passenger trains. And whether those tracks are up to the task of carrying heavy tanker cars.

I am thinking about this because, as part of my train obsession, I am considering a Vancouver-Toronto train trip in late spring to attend a family gathering. They will have fixed things by then, right? I have checked Winnipeg to Toronto airplane schedules and fares, just in case.

Transportation Safety Board statement about second Gogama derailment, issued March 17. It says track failure may have been a factor in recent derailments. Heavily-loaded tanker cars cause greater strain on tracks that may not be up to the job. Here's an excerpt:

"Preliminary indications are that track infrastructure failures may have played a role in each of the Gogama accidents and a 3rd accident that involved a mixed manifest train on the Ruel Subdivision near Minnipuka, Ontario on 5 March 2015. Petroleum crude oil unit trains transporting heavily-loaded tank cars will tend to impart higher than usual forces to the track infrastructure during their operation. These higher forces expose any weaknesses that may be present in the track structure, making the track more susceptible to failure."

TimminsPress.com: CN back on track but still worries in Gogama
No injuries were reported in the March 7 derailment. But a CN worker, part of the cleanup crew, broke a leg after falling in a slippery parking lot.

Gogama.ca: Bulletins from CN and village officials

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