The other weekend, when Han and I were in Alberta, we stayed for a night in Hinton, Alberta. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this town has some significance to me, but I couldn’t quite remember exactly what it was about this town.
On the morning of February 8th, 1986, a VIA passenger train collided with Canadian National Railway freight train, killing 23 people in total. This train collision has somewhat haunted me since I saw a special on it on TV a while back. They interviewed a survivor who desperately wanted to save a little boy who was burning alive, but he couldn’t get to him through the flames, so he had to watch the poor kid die. I can only imagine how the image of that boy would haunt him forever.
The other intriguing part of this train collision is the simple question about how this could have happened in the first place. After a thorough investigation of the accident, it was revealed that there were safety measures that were frequently bypassed by CN employees, and this was simply part of the culture. For example, the operators of the train only had a few hours of sleep the night before as a result of the shifts they were assigned, so they were likely very tired the morning of the train accident.
Another safety measure that was typically bypassed is that the locomotive engineers would wedge a lunchbox on the pedal to hold it down to effectively put the train in “autopilot” mode. This was to prevent the train from going into an automatic emergency brake if the engineer fell asleep briefly. So it was likely that the CN train engineers were using this “deadman’s pedal” that day, and engineer Jack Hudson and brakeman Mark Edwards had most likely fallen asleep at the front of the train.
Another problem was with the communication between the front of the train and the caboose. The only survivor of the freight train was the conductor, Wayne Smith who was riding in the caboose at the time of the collision. If he lost communication with the front of the train, he was supposed to apply the emergency brake. With the train traveling much faster than the maximum speed allowed, Smith should have known to stop the train. When he testified, he appeared to be lying to the panel. The most likely scenario is that he fell asleep as well and didn’t know what was going on until the train collided. I think the panel was correct in blaming CN management for its safety practices instead of laying the blame on Smith, since he already had to deal with losing 2 of his friends, living through life knowing that he might have been able to save them.