Railway Tragedy in Northern Manitoba

On September 15, a train conductor was killed and a locomotive engineer left with life-altering injuries in a derailment near Ponton in northern Manitoba. A Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) train carrying liquefied petroleum gas encountered a track failure resulting in the derailment of the lead locomotive, other locomotives and several cars. The two workers, who were the only two people on the convoy, survived the accident but found themselves trapped under hundreds of tons of debris, while the locomotives began to spread diesel fuel.

A helicopter crew coming to pick up a prospector discovered the wreckage of the train entirely by chance several hours after the derailment. No one at HBR knew anything about the derailment until the fluke observation by the helicopter crew. Hours after the accident, with the workers pinned in the rubble, no one was coming to help them or even aware that they needed rescuing. Only after the helicopter crew notified firefighters and other first responders did they arrive to do their best to save the two injured men. Firefighters were limited by their rescue equipment which is not designed to extricate people trapped in hundreds of tons of steel. The conductor died at the scene. The locomotive engineer was eventually cut free from the debris and taken to Winnipeg in critical condition but is now out of danger.

The union representing the company’s rail workers believes that the accumulation of water from beaver dams may have weakened the railway and caused the derailment. According to the union, the former owners of HBR, the U.S. monopoly Omnitrax, had removed the beaver control program. Omnitrax is notorious for the devastation it caused in northern Manitoba by closing the Port of Churchill and refusing to repair the only rail link to the south after it was severely damaged by the spring floods in 2017. Omnitrax became the owner of the port and the railway company in 1997 when the federal government privatized them and sold them for a pittance. The rail workers are asking for a coroner’s inquest into the September 15 tragedy and are asking the new owners of HBR to join them in calling for an investigation.

This tragedy brings to mind Lac-Mégantic and shows that we need to step up our efforts to hold governments and monopolies to account for their failure to guarantee railway safety. We also know the phenomenon of discount sales of railway lines to owners that do not uphold the maintenance of railways, nor the security and emergency procedures, especially control over all these processes by workers and communities.

Our condolences and sympathy for the grieving families are accompanied by our determination to step up our fight for the safety of all railroad communities and to control the industry and all the processes that affect our safety.

(From Workers’ Forum. Photo: Transportation Safety Board Canada)