What’s up with CN?

Back in August, when CN derailments in Alberta and British Columbia were all-too-frequent items in the news, I began to wonder whether something was up with CN in particular, rather than just random chance. After all, CN maintenance was blamed in a fatal Amtrak derailment on its old Illinois Central line and in a trestle accident in northern BC that killed a train crew. There were complaints, if I remember correctly, that CN’s lean maintenance program was finally coming back to bite them in the ass. (I’ll try to find a link.) Regardless, there was no definitive answer to the question at the time, though I’ve been waiting to see if Trains would pick up the story. (So far, not yet.)

Yesterday, there was another derailment on CN tracks — the third on the former BC Rail line north of Vancouver in the past few months. And in this morning’s Globe and Mail coverage, there’s at least a theory as to why it’s happening so often there: CN has changed operations in a way that makes railroading much riskier on that line.

Grant Young, former director of safety, rules and regulatory services for BC Rail, said the accidents indicate that something is wrong with CN’s operating procedures.
He said BC Rail restricted trains to two locomotives and fewer than 100 cars and had only two derailments in 15 years in the Cheakamus and Sunset Beach areas.
The train that crashed into the Cheakamus River in August, dumping a load of sodium hydroxide into the water, had 144 cars, pulled by five locomotives.
An accident in the area last month involved 122 cars, and the trains that crashed yesterday had 131 cars, with four engines in front and two further back.
Mr. Young said that if too much power is at the front, the engines can simply “straighten out the train” and pull it off the tracks.
Commenting on the 144-car train that crashed into the Cheakamus River, Mr. Young said in an e-mail: “BC Rail would never have allowed that train to operate in that manner as the outcome would have been totally predictable.”

Update, 11/5 at 7:55 AM: Today’s Globe and Mail reports that the federal transport minister has ordered CN to run trains of no more than 80 cars in that area; he’s also threatening CN with a public inquiry into their safety record.