Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, February 10, 2019

CPR crash leaves difficult questions

We’re not getting the full story about the CPR train crash just east of Field, in the Kicking Horse Pass.

            Train #301 had crossed the continental divide, heading west. It had stopped on a slight downgrade along the south shore of Wapta Lake – the last more or less level stretch before the track plunges down the steep hill to Field, and from there on down the Kicking Horse River to Golden.

            Perhaps “plunge” is an overly dramatic word for a two per cent grade. On foot, or in a car, you probably wouldn’t even notice the slope.

            But for a 12,000-ton freight train, it’s a serious descent, reputedly the steepest on any major line in Canada.


History of the Big Hill

            It used to be much worse. When the rail line was first carved down the Kicking Horse canyon, the descent into Field was more than four per cent. Trains had to be divided into shorter units, shuffled down the Big Hill by special engines, and re-assembled in Field to continue west.

            In hindsight, the Kicking Horse pass was possibly the worst possible route through the spine of the Rocky Mountains. Both the Crow’s Nest pass, farther south, or the Yellowhead much farther north, would have been better choices.

            Survey parties also considered the Howse Pass and the Vermillion Pass more feasible. But CPR brass and Ottawa politicians in were in a hurry. Get the line built, regardless, they demanded. And the rail line has paid for their impatience ever since.

            The hazards of the Big Hill were finally subdued by the construction of the world-famous Spiral Tunnels. Instead of following the side of the mountains where the Kicking Horse river descends in a series of waterfalls, the CPR tunnelled into both sides of the canyon in a gigantic figure eight, that roughly doubled the length of the line and halved the grade.

            These days, CPR runs trains many times longer and heavier over that line.


Violating laws of physics

            The train that crashed had three engines, and 112 fully loaded grain cars

            According to reports, Train #301 had been safely stopped for over two hours before it started down the hill towards Field. It could not have been stopped without its airbrakes working.

            While it stood still, a new operating crew took over.

            And then, unaccountably, the train started to roll. “It was not anything the crew did,” senior investigator James Carmichael assured the media. “The train started to move on its own.”

            That seems to contradict the basic laws of physics. As Isaac Newton theorized, centuries ago, things do not move on their own unless a force is applied to them.

            In this case, the moving force is obvious – gravity. But gravity could only start the train moving if the equal and opposite force keeping it still for the last two hours was removed – the brakes.

            Did someone release the brakes? Conceivably, it could have been sabotage, by an unknown person. Or did the brakes fail? Which might point the blame at corporate maintenance practices.

            Either way, a lot of questions remain answered.

            Why didn’t anyone notice that the train had started moving? Did no one re-apply the brakes? Did anyone consider putting several thousand horsepower into reverse while the train was still barely moving?

            The three-member operating crew had to be on board, because they were killed in the crash. They couldn’t have leaped on several kilometres down the valley.

            What did – or didn’t -- they do to stop the juggernaut as it gathered speed?

            My math suggests that it must have taken the train up to half an hour, gradually gaining speed as it coasted downhill for about six kilometres. Were there no phone calls to the central dispatcher? If there were, I haven’t seen any official confirmation.


Unanswered questions

            I accept that this is a tragedy. I grieve for the families and friends of the dead men. I grieve for all railway employees, suddenly reminded of the risks they take operating a very heavy object that can generate near-irresistible momentum.

            I also acknowledge that I have no railway experience. I don’t know what those three men could or should have done.

            But the facts available lead me to an uncomfortable conclusion -- someone did something that enabled 112 freight cars and three engines to start rolling, to build up speed through the Upper Spiral Tunnel, and finally to derail and crash into the Kicking Horse River.

            Fortunately, the freight cars carried grain. Had they been oil tankers, the devastation would have been far greater.

            What really happened up there, that night, in the dark?

            I wonder if we will ever know.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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A note about the column above. It appeared in the Saturday morning edition of the Kelowna newspaper. Several people who know more about railways than I do castigated me for blaming the crew, who, they argued, were certainly doing everything they could to stop the train that was hurtling them towards certain death. If that’s the impression given, I apologize. I wanted the column to say two things:

1)   Trains don’t start moving by themselves. 

2)   There’s a lot of information that we aren’t being given, yet, and that I’m afraid we may never be given. 


Now on to the letters about last week’s column. There wasn’t much you could say in response.


Anne McRae mused, “All the bad stuff we hear every time we turn on the TV but there are a lot of ‘good, loving, forgiving’ people in the world, too. Thanks for your uplifting story. A good way to start a week.”


Clare Neufeld was “impressed at the vulnerability with which you set aside the ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ scepticism of good journalism, without setting aside good journalism.” Referring to my closing line “So did I,” Clare commented, it “says so much more than six letters and two spaces would suggest.”


And Isabel Gibson wrote, “Thanks for the links to these stories of valour, community, and loss. Focusing on our shared humanity might be just what we need to maintain it.”






If you want to comment on something, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca. Or just hit the ‘Reply’ button.

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                       Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet





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