FIELD, B.C. – Train engineer Mark Bretherton is haunted by an eerie conversation he had with a co-worker who was one of three men who died when a freight train derailed on the notoriously steep Field Hill five years ago.
Andy Dockrell, a 56-year-old engineer, conductor Dylan Paradis, 33, and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer, 26, died in a train derailment on the Field Hill Feb. 4, 2019, in what the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) determined was primarily due to brake failure.
Just a month earlier, Bretherton had been the original engineer of a 4,000-tonne, 10,000-foot freight train that ultimately derailed near the Upper Spiral Tunnel Jan. 3, 2019, in almost the same spot as the triple fatality a few hours after his shift ended.
Bretherton said he had warned this was going to happen in the hours before the derailment after experiencing repeated brake problems with the 159-car train, which included 13 with dangerous goods – 12 cars loaded with diesel fuel and one with hazardous waste.
When his shift timed after 12 hours and the relief crew was told to take the train down the notorious section of track, Bretherton jumped into a snowplow headed for the Field bunkhouse. Unbeknownst to him, 15 empty cars ended up derailing near the Upper Spiral Tunnel.
Wound up by the events that unfolded during his shift, he couldn’t sleep and began wandering the halls of the bunkhouse where he bumped into Dockrell, a train engineer who was one of the three men killed a month later.
He said Dockrell informed him that the train had derailed, but the crew was thankfully uninjured.
The next part of the conversation gives Bretherton chills to this day.
“He looked me straight in the eye and with this expression – and I will never forget it as a long as I live – he said to me, ‘one of these days, these f…ing guys, they’re going to kill someone’,” Bretherton recalls Dockrell telling him.
“Exactly one month to the day later Andy Dockrell was killed. Everything that I predicted had actually come true.”
Bretherton, who has been a train engineer since 2006 and is currently on stress leave, is voicing concerns over train safety in this country.
As the original engineer in the lead-up to the Jan. 3 derailment five years ago, Bretherton said he had begged Canadian Pacific Railway (now known as Canadian Pacific Kansas City) not to allow the freight train to go down the Field Hill because of braking problems.
In all, he believed many of the problems were caused by a combination of excessive train length, tonnage, long drawbars, flawed marshalling of empty cars, weather conditions, and technical issues with locomotive power.
Bretherton said the trip from Calgary was relatively uneventful until near the top of the Field Hill grade – a 21-kilometre section of steep track with several sharp curves near the Alberta/B.C. border.
“We get to Stephen and this is where the excrement hits the fan,” he said.
There, Bretherton said strict braking procedures are in place to get safely down the Field Hill.
“Our train was extremely heavy. It was 14,000 tonnes and a two-mile long train. For this type of train, it was very long being mixed merchandise,” he said.
“I had doubts about this train because of its length and its tonnage before I even left.”
Bretherton said he adhered to the Field Hill braking policy, and as the train began to descend, he said he noticed significant unrequested airflow occurring in spikes at random moments as the train crossed the Great Divide and the curve around Wapta Lake.
“What happened was as we began to crest the hill is that the cars began to move in and out, because of the train length and mis-marshalling on the train,” he said.
“When I noticed this undesired flow, I said ‘any second now, the brakes are going to release’ and as soon as I said that the brakes released and off we went,” he added.
Because he was closely watching how the train was performing, Bretherton said he took action to bring the train to a safe stop.
“Fortunately, I was aware of the danger that might happen and so I was right there to prevent any further disaster,” he said.
Bretherton spoke to the railway traffic controller, and later with the train-master, to inform both of them that he did not believe it was safe for the train to descend the steep mountain grade.
He said he was told it was impossible to reverse the train from that location and was instructed to proceed.
“I said the brakes are going to release again, there’s no way to prevent this, this is going to happen again… It cannot go down the hill. I said it will crash,” he said.
“He said you’ve passed the point of no return and you can’t back up now. … Because we work in a culture of intimidation and fear, I complied with his instructions, albeit reluctantly.”
The train was held stationary by the independent brakes on the three locomotives while the air brakes were recharged for approximately 25 minutes. The train departed at 4:45 a.m., continuing westward for Port Coquitlam.
A few minutes later, a train-initiated undesired emergency brake application (UDE) occurred while the train was travelling at approximately eight miles per hour, which Bretherton said resulted in what he called an emergency.
This resulted in a second unplanned stop.
The conductor performed an inspection and identified a broken knuckle, with evidence of pre-existing rust on the fracture surfaces, possibly indicative of fatigue on the trailing end of the 50th rail car.
“It was rusty and had fatigue and it had broken and so we can’t proceed,” said Bretherton.
“But we were instructed to put the train back together.”
When the replacement crew arrived because Bretherton and other train had timed out having been on duty for 12 hours, the two crews held a job briefing, which included discussions about both events.
Based on his experience, Bretherton said he told the new crew the train was not safe to proceed, believing there was a high likelihood of another undesired brake release.
He suggested the train be broken down into sections to safely descend the Field Hill.
“I said, ‘boys, do not take this train down the hill.’ I said it is not safe. I said the brakes have released on me and now we’re in an emergency. I said this is a sign,” he said.
“I implored CP officials not to let the train proceed down the Field Hill. It was clear to me that another UDR would, and subsequently did occur, leading to a major derailment.”
A few hours later, unaware that the train had derailed as he feared and warned it would, was when Bretherton encountered Dockrell in the Field bunkhouse.
“I told him about the various issues and that we had encountered an undesired release,” he said.
“He then informed me, to my shock and horror, that the train had derailed around the top Spiral Tunnel.”
The Transportation Safety Board released its investigation findings into January 2019 derailment in July 2023.
The investigators found that while on the Field Hill an in-cab alert activated as the front end of the train was exiting the Upper Spiral Tunnel, indicating a train-initiated undesired release of the air brakes (UDR).
In response, the locomotive engineer who had taken over when Bretherton’s shift ended made a full-service brake application, as required by operating rules, and applied the locomotive dynamic brakes to bring the train to a controlled stop.
“The subsequent rapid deceleration resulted in the block of heavy loaded cars at the tail end of the train running into the empty cars near the centre, leading to the derailment of 15 empty cars in the Upper Spiral Tunnel,” stated the TSB report.
In this occurrence, the train had been assembled using destination marshalling – meaning cars were grouped in blocks destined for the same location – therefore, several heavy loaded cars were placed at the rear end of the train in preparation for the first stop in Golden, B.C.
Although the train cleared CP’s computer-based train marshalling verification program before departing, the investigation found it was not compliant with the railway’s general operating instructions. Those rules stated that heavy cars must be placed as close as possible to the head of the train and light cars should be placed as close as possible to the rear unless the cars behind them are also relatively light.
As Bretherton had said, the investigation determined the train had experienced an earlier undesired release of brakes six hours before the derailment, yet a decision to proceed was made without an alternative plan of action.
“The decision to proceed after the first UDR likely did not take into consideration the risks associated with potential high in-train forces should another UDR occur, especially on the steep descending grade and sharp curves of Field Hill,” states the investigators’ reports.
The TSB – which is an independent agency that investigates air, marine, pipeline, and rail transportation occurrences – concluded that based on information relayed by the train crew to the rail traffic controller, the knuckle had pre-existing rust on the fracture surfaces.
“It was determined that, after the knuckle broke, the 50th car pulled away from the trailing 51st car, which resulted in separation of the adjoining air hoses, causing the UDE,” stated the report.
Bretherton believes the railway giant puts productivity above safety, noting the two unplanned stops while he was lead engineer caused significant delays.
“The most obvious explanation is the fact that they didn’t want to delay that train any more than they had to, because time is money on the railway,” he said.
In an emailed statement, Canadian Pacific Kansas City said Bretherton mischaracterizes CPKC’s commitment to safety and various actions taken to improve its safety record.
As outlined in the TSB report examining the January 2019 incident, CPKC said the company instituted several actions following the derailment to further improve safety.
Those actions included conducting an extensive review and analysis of the train make-up, or so-called marshalling, of hundreds of trains operating west of Calgary, updating those restrictions.
“Safety is foundational to everything CPKC does,” according to the statement. “We take pride in advancing a culture of safety and always work to improve.”
The statement said CPKC’s trend for Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)-reportable train accident frequency in 2023, among Class 1 railroads, builds on Canadian Pacific’s legacy of 17 consecutive years of having the lowest train accident frequency in the industry.
“When incidents occur, CPKC believes that safety improvements are achieved when objective analysis is undertaken to truly understand the causes,” reads the statement.
Five years ago on Feb. 4, 2019, the fatal train derailment that Bretherton said he feared would eventually happen following the drama a month earlier, involved a grain train with 112 loaded hopper cars travelling from Calgary to Vancouver, B.C.
While descending the Field Hill, according to the TSB investigation into the derailment, the inbound train crew was not able to maintain the required speed and applied the brakes in emergency, bringing the train to a stop.
The brake cylinder pressure retaining valves were set on 84 cars to retain residual air pressure, which would facilitate getting the train underway again, allowing the air brakes to recharge as it continued its descent.
A relief crew was called in to replace the inbound crew as they were at the end of their shift. During this time, the train’s air brake system had been leaking brake cylinder pressure, reducing the capacity to keep the train stopped on the grade.
Shortly after the relief crew took over, the train began to creep forward and accelerate uncontrolled down the steep grade.
“The train reached 53 mph, and was unable to negotiate a sharp curve, resulting in the derailment of two locomotives and 99 cars, and the three relief crew members being fatally injured,” stated the TSB.
Following the incident, TSB made three key recommendations to enhance safety of cold-weather train operations through mountainous territory following the fatal derailment.
In addition, Transport Canada introduced several initiatives, and CP proceeded, among other things, to remove more than 5,000 grain cars from service for repair. Safety actions taken by both parties were detailed in the investigation report.
The TSB sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the board’s role to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.
“This tragic accident demonstrates, once again, that uncontrolled movements of rolling stock continue to pose a significant safety risk to railway operations in Canada,” said Kathy Fox, TSB chair when the investigation report was released.
“It is obvious that more must be done to reduce the risks to railway employees and the Canadian public, reduce preventable loss of life, and increase the safety and resilience of this vital part of the Canadian supply chain.”
Bretherton said he feels he has an obligation to his three colleagues who died in the Feb. 4 derailment to inform people of what happened in the lead to the derailment a month earlier.
“This is normal business practice as far as I can see. … Uphill slow, downhill fast, profit first, and safety last as the venerable maxim goes,” he said.
“I’d been afraid of this for years and now it’s finally occurred, and even now it gives me the chills to actually consider this,” he said.
“I am traumatized by all of this but committed to do all I can do to change it. I count myself lucky to have survived to tell this story.”