Marijuana, Cellphone Use Cited in Report on B.C. Train Crash

Crews aboard Canadian Pacific Railway trains will face new drug tests and have been handed tighter restrictions around cellphone use after marijuana and personal calls were implicated in a double crash and derailment in southeastern B.C.

The company conducted a safety investigation after an eastbound freight train overran a stop signal and rammed the side of a westbound train March 3, 2010, near Golden, just west of the B.C.-Alberta border.

No one was seriously hurt, but three locomotives and 26 boxcars were tossed off the track.

The force punctured a trackside propane tank, causing more than 11,000 litres of diesel to spill and forcing the evacuation of several homes and businesses. A substantial fire had to be doused.

A Transportation Safety Board report released last week found the train’s engineer had traces of marijuana in his system, while other crew members made numerous cellphone calls during the journey. The last one ended about 60 seconds before the collision.

Canadian Pacific spokesperson Ed Greenberg called the incident “very serious.”

“(It) reinforced that CP should continue with a number of initiatives already under way to reduce in-cab distraction, enhance communication and focus attention on critical tasks to maintain train safety during operation,” Greenberg said Friday.

“We didn’t take it lightly.”

The engineer and a conductor were fired.

The company has responded by tightening its long-standing prohibition of personal electronic devices while on the job. Canadian Pacific also plans to introduce saliva testing in January as part of its drug and alcohol detecting measures.

The report said the use of cellphones distracted crew members at a time when they needed to focus on tasks critical to safety. When another problem occurred on the train, they weren’t as aware of the broader situation and neglected to notice an approaching junction.

“In this case, the crew’s situational awareness was likely focused on resolving the (other) issue related to the reported hot wheels and not on the impending requirement to stop the train,” the report said.

It notes similar distraction of a train crew in California led to the collision of a passenger and freight train in September 2008, killing 25 people.

The report cited research that found drivers’ use of a cellphone up to 10 minutes before a crash was associated with a fourfold increase in the likelihood of a crash. The research also found text messaging had similar effects on driving performance.

“Railway rules and company policy establish strict protocols for the use of personal electronic devices by employees in safety sensitive positions while on duty,” the report said.

“Not all railway employees working in safety sensitive and safety critical positions understand and accept the risks associated with such distractions, increasing the risk of unsafe train operations.”

Following the derailment and at least nine other recent collisions, Canadian Pacific moved to reduce in-cab distraction. The company told employees on July 1, 2010, that they are barred from using any personal electronic device except in strict circumstances.

The report also found the eastbound engineer needed lifesaving treatment when he collapsed after drinking about 10 litres of water in an effort to flush any trace of marijuana from his system.

The report did not specify what role the engineer’s condition may have played in the collision.

“The ingestion of water and the delay in alcohol and drug testing likely affected the usefulness of the tests,” the board concluded.

“Without a requirement to conduct timely, postaccident testing for drug and alcohol use (when warranted), there is an increased risk of inconclusive test results.”

– Article originally from The Spec.