Warning issued on how railways check trains’ air brakes

A letter issued by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board to Transport Canada suggests the system used to check air brakes on loaded grain hopper cars may be inadequate.

It suggested that the system does not reliably identify ineffective or malfunctioning brakes and may have been a factor in a February 2019 train derailment that killed three crew members on a Canadian Pacific freight train in the Rocky Mountains.

In a letter dated April 17, 2020, and sent to Transport Canada, TSB’s director of rail investigations Paul Treboutat said the so-called No. 1 visual brake test that is used to check air brake effectiveness on westbound grain trains “does not reliably identify ineffective brakes in rail cars.”

“Given this information, Transport Canada is advised that an alternate approach to determining the effectiveness of freight car air brakes is required to ensure that departing trains have sufficient effective brakes to operate safely,” Treboutat’s letter added.

“The TSB would appreciate being advised of (Transport Canada’s) position on this issue, and what action, if any, will be taken in this regard.”

The TSB letter was issued last month as part of an investigation into the fatal derailment of a westbound CP train in winter conditions near Field, B.C.

A CP train consisting of 112 loaded grain cars and three locomotives, left Calgary’s Alyth rail yard on Feb. 3, 2019, bound for Vancouver.

Qualified employees at Alyth Yard conducted a standard No. 1 brake test prior to the train’s departure from Calgary, the TSB has determined.

In order to pass the No. 1 brake test, Canadian regulations require that at least 95 percent of the air brakes on an inspected train be operating properly prior to departure from a designated safety inspection location.

The No. 1 brake test is a visual examination that does not measure actual brake force.

Within hours of departing Calgary, a train crew that moved CP train 301 from Calgary to Partridge, B.C. — not far from the site of the derailment — reported difficulties in controlling their train to a speed of below 15 m.p.h. on a steep descending grade.

After parking the train in emergency mode at Partridge (Mile 128.7 of CP’s Laggan Subdivision), a new crew boarded the train.

Crew members Andrew Dockrell, Dylan Paradis and Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer were killed shortly after they boarded the train. Ninety nine of the train’s loaded grain cars and two locomotives derailed at Mile 130.6 near Field.

The TSB’s letter to Transport Canada raises concerns about the need to implement more effective air brake testing methods on loaded westbound trains that travel over steep grades, particularly in frigid conditions.

It also suggests that Transport Canada may have known previously about potential deficiencies in the No. 1 visual brake testing method but failed to make regulatory changes to enhance the train safety prior to the fatal derailment.

In 2015, Transport Canada, the National Research Council (NRC) and CP initiated a joint research project on an alternative brake testing system called Automated Train Brake Effectiveness (ATBE).

The ATBE research examined wheel temperature data from a series of cold wheel detectors located at the bottom of long descending grades where prolonged air brake applications are required to control train speed.

“In 2016, preliminary research results documented a high frequency of unit grain cars with cold wheels under braking,” the TSB said in its recent letter to Transport Canada.

Researchers then conducted a comparison of the ATBE brake test results and the No. 1 visual brake test results on a sample of 44 grain trains.

Data from the comparison found that ATBE testing identified 695 cars with ineffective air brakes while the No. 1 visual brake test identified only five cars with ineffective air brakes, a ratio of 139 to one.

A further detailed analysis of air brake functionality suggested that all the cars that failed the ATBE test were in fact defective and required mechanical repairs.

The project was completed in 2018 but so far, no changes have been implemented.

According to the TSB, a subsequent review of CP’s health and safety committee hazard notifications revealed “multiple instances where train crews operating loaded unit grain trains westward descending Field Hill in winter operating conditions experienced difficulty controlling train speed.”

“These hazard notifications document air brake performance issues on unit grain trains that had successfully passed a No. 1 brake test.”

In an email to the media, Transport Canada said it is reviewing the TSB’s April 17 letter and is determining next steps

“We will not hesitate to take action to further protect the safety of the rail system,” Transport Canada said.

In a May 15 email to The Western Producer, CP said it has been working to develop and implement the more reliable Automated Train Brake Effectiveness (ATBE) technology for over a decade.

“CP proactively seeks to continuously improve by developing and using science and technology to increase the safety of our employees and the communities through which we operate,” CP’s email said.

“The National Research Council (NRC) study was a catalyst for CP to further develop its ATBE algorithm, and recently CP received an exemption from Transport Canada to implement the use of this technology on its potash and sulfur fleets in place of the No. 1 brake test.”

CP has been in discussions with Transport Canada and is anticipating that it will be ready to file its submission for the adoption of the ATBE technology for its grain fleet later this year, the company added.

Since the release of the NRC study, CP continues to gather and study additional data and test different algorithms in order to further expand the use of ATBE to its grain fleet.

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