Brake Defects Plague Canada’s Aging Grain Cars

Written by David Thomas, Canadian Contributing Editor

Hard-to-detect braking system defects have rendered Canada’s aging fleet of grain hoppers a safety hazard, says a former director of derailment investigations for the country’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB), the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. NTSB. Ian Naish, who retired from the TSB in 2009, in a CBC interview posted May 15, declared, “The grain car fleet overall is quite defective.”

Naish’s warning followed his former employer’s Rail Safety Advisory Letter dated April 20, 2020, which said that the standard visual inspection of brake pipe connections and piston applications—the so-called “Number 1 Test” performed by car inspectors prior to trains departing originating yards—is unreliable and does not reveal a high percentage of malfunctioning railcar brakes.

The TSB advisory emerged from the agency’s continuing investigation into a Feb. 4 , 2019 runaway and triple-fatality derailment of a Canadian Pacific grain train descending the steep grade connecting the Spiral Tunnels near Field, B.C. The investigation found that the train had passed the Number 1 test at Calgary’s Alyth Yard the day before, indicating that at least 95% of the train’s 112 grain cars had intact rigging and normal piston travel under the application and release of brake pipe air pressure.

As TSB noted, “The actual brake force or its effect is not physically measured.” In other words, the Number 1 brake test verifies connectivity and piston travel, but says nothing about the actual braking power of shoes against wheel treads. The brake may visually appear to be functioning when it is in fact applying little stopping pressure.

The discrepancy between a passing grade on physical inspection and true brake performance was spotlighted back in 2016 in joint research by the TSB, CP and the National Research Council. The tests measured the temperature of each wheel in a train after a long descending grade requiring prolonged brake applications. Warm wheels indicated properly functioning brakes; cold wheels the opposite. There was a wide variation between visual inspection passes and actual brake energy conversion, as measured by trackside sensors in ATBE (Automated Train Brake Effectiveness) testing. CP has been involved in implementation and testing of ATBE since 2011, according to a report from the International Railway Safety Council.

In a comparison of inspection methods comprising 44 grain trains, the automated temperature checks “identified 695 cars with ineffective brakes, while the No. 1 brake test identified 5 cars; a 139:1 ratio.”

To measure the reliability of the temperature checks, 14 cars with cold wheels were subjected to single-car brake tests; all failed and were found to have defects requiring repairs.

TSB noted that, even before the 2019 runaway that killed three crew members, CP’s health and safety committee had received several reports that grain train engineers were unable to properly moderate speed while descending Field Hill:

“These hazard notifications document air brake performance issues on unit grain trains that had successfully passed a No. 1 brake test. The ATBE test results and the hazard notifications of train braking anomalies on Field Hill both suggest that the No. 1 brake test does not reliably identify ineffective brakes in railcars.”

In its April safety advisory, TSB requested that Canada’s rail regulator, Transport Canada, develop “an alternate approach to determining the effectiveness of freight car air brakes  … to ensure that departing trains have sufficient effective brakes to operate safely.”

The TSB investigation of the fatal Field Hill derailment is expected to conclude next year.

In January, the TSB’s lead investigator on the incident urged the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to initiate a criminal investigation. “There is enough to suspect there’s negligence here, and it needs to be investigated by the proper authority,” TSB Senior Investigator Don Crawford told CBC News. About the same time, a CP police officer quit the company, alleging that a “cover-up” by the railway prevented proper investigation by the CP’s police force. That officer subsequently joined the RCMP, which said at the time that it would review the case.

Railway Age’s sister publication, RT&S, contacted Canadian Pacific about the results of the latest study. Spokesperson Andy Cummings provided this statement:

For more than a decade, CP has led the industry in developing and implementing Automated Train Brake Effectiveness (ATBE) technology. 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.

The National Research Council 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 sulphur fleets in place of the No. 1 brake test.

CP has been in discussions with TC throughout 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.

Since the release of the NRC study, CP has and continues to actively 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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