Canada’s history dotted with deadly train disasters

Steve Mertl
Canada’s history dotted with deadly train disasters

The deadly Lac-Megantic train derailment fire joins a sobering list of Canadian rail disasters that have dotted our country's history.

Railways have knit Canada together for a century and a half, transporting goods and people. The threat of calamity and death has always been there, especially in the early days when equipment was relatively primitive and safety systems more rudimentary.

The Quebec town of St-Hilaire remains the site of Canada's worst rail disaster, on June 29, 1864, when a Grand Trunk Railway train carrying more than 450 passengers failed to stop ahead of an open swing bridge across the Richelieu River.

According to reports, 99 people died when the train drove off the bridge and into the river. The newly-hired engineer, who survived the accident, claimed he was not familiar with the route and didn't see the stop signal as the bridge opened to allow river traffic through.

The death toll exceeded a crash near Hamilton, Ont., when a Great Western Railway passenger train fell into the Desjardins Canal in March, 1857. According to an account in The Canadian Encyclopedia, a broken axle on the locomotive caused a derailment just as the train was crossing a bridge over the canal.

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The train fell through the wooden bridge deck and onto the ice-covered canal 20 metres below, with the engine and tender breaking through the ice. Some 59 of the 100 passengers died.

A Labour Day weekend excursion turned into disaster in 1947 when a special train carrying Winnipeg families and students from a trip to the lake ran into a standing train. The collision and subsequent fire that raced through the holiday train's old wooden coaches claimed 31 lives, according to a post on the Manitoba Historical Society's web site.

Unanswered questions still surround the Hinton rail disaster of Feb. 8, 1986, when a Canadian National Railway freight train collided head-on with a VIA Rail passenger train near the Alberta town. The accident took 23 lives, with another 95 people suffering injuries.

The crash was blamed on the freight train, whose crew apparently ignored a stop signal set to allow the VIA train to pass on the single-track section of CN's main line west of Edmonton. An investigation found the freight train passed the signal at almost 100 kilometres an hour, above the 80 km/h speed limit, jumping a switch and smashing into the passenger train seconds later.

Why the freigh train's crew, which died in the accident, failed to stop was never determined but autopsies ruled out drugs or alcohol as a cause, according to the Town of Hinton's web site. An inquiry blamed "railroader culture" that sacrificed safety in the name of productivity.

An accident in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga on Nov. 10, 1979, had a potential to be much worse than the Lac-Megantic crash. A CP Rail freight that included several tank cars laden with toxic chemicals derailed and several cars exploded, creating a cloud of poisonous gas.

The late-night crash forced the evacuation of more than 200,000 Mississauga residents, considered the largest peacetime evacuation in North America until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Thankfully, no one was killed and the emergency workers were praised for how they handled the evacuation.