Five Fatal Minutes: The 1986 Hinton Train Collision

Max S
14 min readJun 27, 2021

Background

Hinton is a town of 9882 people (as of 2016) in southwestern Canada, located in the Province (similar to a state in the USA) of Alberta, 254km/158mi west of Edmonton (the Province’s capital) and 356km/221mi east of Prince George (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Hinton in southwest Canada.

The town lies on the Alberta Provincial Highway Number 16, part of the Yellowhead Highway running west to east from Masset, British Columbia, through most of Canada’s west-east expansion until reaching Winnipeg in Manitoba. The second way of long distance transport is the CN (Canadian National Railway) which has The Canadian stop at Hinton Station as a so-called flag stop, meaning the train only stops if notified of demand for a stop 48 hours in advance. In the 1980s the town was also served by Via Rail’s Super Continental, a cross-continent passenger train running from Montreal in the east to Vancouver in the west and back before being shortened to Winnipeg-Vancouver. Leaving Hinton to the east leads into a single track section, which turns into a double-track configuration a few kilometers outside the town near the Obed Summit Rest Area on Highway 16.

The site of the accident seen from above, Hinton lies to the left of the frame.

The trains involved

Travelling through Hinton on its eastbound journey from Jasper to Edmonton was the Via Rail Super Continental, which had seen the Skeena, another Via Rail passenger service, added to the back of it in its entirety (including the locomotive) at Jasper. The train was led by EMD FP7 number 6566, a four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 1949. Weighting 120 metric tons at 16.82m/55.2ft in length the FP7 can reach up to 192kph/119mph thanks to a supercharged two-stroke V16 diesel engine producing 1100KW/1500hp.

Via Rail FP7 #6566, the leading locomotive from the accident, photographed 5 months prior to the accident.

Following behind #6566 was EMD F9B number 6633, a cab-less so called B-unit of the EMD F9. B-units are referred to as Boosters, providing additional power without requiring a second crew by being remote-controlled by the crew in the locomotive in front. The EMD F9 is a four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 1953. Each F9B-unit weights 103.4 metric tons at 15.2m/50ft in length and can reach up to 169kph/105mph.

Via Rail F9B #6633, the booster unit involved, photographed in May 1984.

Included in the train in 8th position was the Skeena’s locomotive, being pulled along with the engine off. On the day of the accident the Skeena had been pulled by GMD FP9ARM number 6300, a version of the GMD FP9A refurbished specifically for Via Rail. Introduced into service in 1983 with new engines and electrical systems these 16.66m/54.8ft long locomotives had a power output of 1300KW/1800hp and could reach up to 105mph/169kph despite weighting 120 metric tons while being more reliable than the standard FP9, which had been in service since 1954.

Via Rail FP9ARM #6300 photographed in 2008, having been preserved.

Consisting of 9 passenger cars and two steam generator cars (for heating) the passenger train, operating simply as “Number 4”, carried 94 passengers and a crew of 21 including the locomotive crew. Driving the train at the time of the accident were the engineers Mister Peleshaty, aged 57, and Mister Miller, aged 53. There was no crew on #6300, which acted largely like a train car.

Coming the other way was CN freight train number 413, consisting of 3 locomotives and 115 freight cars most of which carried grain. The freight train measured 1867m/6124ft long and weighted 11616 metric tons.Leading the train was EMD GP38–2W number 5586, a Canadian market version of the EMD GP38–2 featuring the so-called Canadian Comfort Cab (the W is actually an unofficial designation by enthusiasts to specify these cabs). The Term “comfort cab” actually refers to the nose-section rather than the cab, which, on these locomotives, stretches the width of the locomotive meaning the doors are moved to the rear. The wider nose features additional impact protection engineered for collisions with obstacles smaller than the locomotive such as stopped vehicles or fallen trees. The changes also create a little more space inside the cabin itself, making them more comfortable to be in. Technically there is no difference to the standard EMD GP38–2 except for slightly different wiring and snow-shields on the air intakes. The GP38–2 is a four-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive introduced in 1972 for service with railway companies in the Americas and Saudi Arabia. Each locomotive weights 113.4 metric tons at 18.03m/59.2ft in length and can reach 105kph/65mph thanks to a supercharged two-stroke V16 diesel engine producing 1490KW/2000hp.

CN GP38–2W #4769, identical to the locomotive pulling the freight train, photographed in 2000.

Following behind the leading #5586 were two EMD SD40, numbered 5104 and 5062. The EMD SD40 is a six-axle diesel freight locomotive introduced in 1966. Engineered for both freight trains and shunting work these locomotives weight 160 metric tons at 20m/65.6ft in length and can reach 134kph/83mph thanks to a turbocharged V16 diesel engine producing 2240KW/3000hp. The train was driven by engineer Mister Hudson, aged 48, with brakeman Mister Edwards, aged 25, accompanying him. Riding in the caboose, a crew car required for freight trains at the time, at the back of the train was the conductor, Mister Smith, aged 33.

CN SD40 #5104, the second locomotive on the freight train, photographed in 1981. Note the narrower nose.

The accident

On the 8th of February 1986 at approximately 8am the freight train is stopped in a siding outside the town of Medicine Lodge, 24km/15mi linear distance east of Hinton, to let two eastbound train pass on the otherwise single track section of the line. Departing Medicine Lodge at 8:02am the freight train reached the eastern end of the double track section at Hargwen at 8:20am, being directed into the northern track (Canadian Railways use Right Hand Traffic). At about the same time the Super Continental departed Hinton eastbound five minutes behind schedule.

A photo from the report showing the exit signal with a worker for size-reference.

At 8:29am the dispatcher set the points at the western beginning of the double track section for the southern track, turning the exit-signal for the northern track, located 150m/490m before the western end of the double track section, red. The signal now displayed three solid red lights for the freight train, a clear order that the train must not proceed any further. Travelling, as the freight train did, east to west this signal was preceded by an approach signal 4.1km/2.5mi ahead of the exit signal, which now displayed yellow over red indicating “expect stop”. This meant that the freight train was ordered to reduce speed to 48kph/30mph and prepare to come to a stop at the exit signal.

As they approached the first signal Mister Smith radioed the locomotive, figuring out by the mileboards along the track that the locomotives were about to reach it. He got no reply on several calls, but figured that the radio was simply defective. He didn’t think that anything was wrong as he estimated them to be travelling at about 80kph/50mph and felt like the brakes had been applied a little bit. Both these estimates were false, though. The conductor could have checked the air pressure gauges for the brakes, but trusting in his coworkers and his instinct he did not do it. For unknown reasons the crew of the freight train had become incapacitated or at least inattentive as they approached the signal and the train went past the approach signal at 95kph/59mph, 14kph/9mph faster than they would’ve been allowed to travel had the signal been green. The investigation would find not trace of the brakes being applied. Shortly after it ran the approach signal the train also ran the main signal without slowing down, “breaking” the points (the process of going through a set of points from a side the points are not set up for) and entering the single tracks section right in front of the passenger train. Two passengers on the passenger train saw the lights of the approaching freight train, one of which, Mister Warniski in car 4, realized that it was on the same track and called out as such just moments before the collision. At 8:40am, 18 seconds after the freight train broke the points, the two trains collided head on at a combined speed of 174kph/108mph. Both leading locomotives were obliterated in the collision, killing their crews instantly, as the train cars behind them derailed. On the freight train’s side, the 76 first freight cars and the three locomotives were destroyed or severely damaged in seconds, while the passenger train’s forward section (ahead of locomotive #6300) derailed and ran into the wreckage and each other. The leading passenger car was crushed by a freight car propelled into the air by the forces of the collision, the second suffered severe damage as it ran into the stationary locomotives at speed. The dome car (featuring an elevated glass dome for better views of the landscape) derailed and almost fell over, several survivors managed to escape through broken windows in the dome and jump down, abandoning the train. Two passenger cars behind the dome car were thrown aside, causing at times severe injuries but no deaths as they were essentially thrown clear of the wreckage. The rear passenger cars didn’t derail but the violent stop still caused the passengers to suffer injuries. The same moment the locomotives collided their fuel tanks tore open, sparking a massive fireball to engulfing the locomotives, the baggage car and he leading passenger car. As the grain-loaded hoppers piled up they spilled their cargo over the wreckage, some of it landing inside the torn-open leading passenger car smothered flames inside it and allowed a few survivors to escape.

It should be mentioned that the report’s section on the aftermath starts with the following: The devastation caused by the impact defies description. It is not possible to appreciate the horror that the victims of the collision experienced .

In seconds 23 people lost their lives in an event of incredible force and violence. Among the dead were both locomotive-crews and 18 passengers of the leading passenger car (which ran in fourth position behind the baggage car and locomotives). 71 people are injured in Canda’s worst railway accident since 1947. The report still notes that, seeing the aftermath, the number of survivors is notably high, indicating a lot of acts of bravery along survivors leading to them helping each other rather than abandoning the wreckage as soon as possible.

Aftermath

Moments after the collision but before the freight train stopped moving Smith saw the fireball in the distance warned the locomotive crew before deciding to jump off the caboose after grabbing a radio and important documents, he was concerned that the caboose and the cars with dangerous cargo (including several cars carrying caustic soda and ethylene dichloride) ahead of it would run into the fire. Failing to reach the locomotive crew on the gray radio (the one for communications between trains and train crews) as he ran after the slowing freight train he heard a call coming in on the red radio (the one used by dispatch to contact trains). He climbed onto the caboose as it stopped and picked up the radio. In the ensuing short conversation he told the dispatcher that something went wrong further up the train, saying the train derailed and that he saw a big explosion towards the middle of the train (he estimated 40 cars ahead of him). He further told dispatch that he can’t reach the locomotive crew but doesn’t want to run up the train due to the smoke and fumes from the fire (which he still assumed to be between him and the locomotive). After the conversation, with dispatch notifying emergency services, Smith started moving up the train to check on the 20 cars listed as carrying dangerous goods. Luckily, as it turned out, those had been assembled near the back of the train and, while some had suffered minor damage from the sudden stop, they did not derail or loose their cargo. Hearing this from Smith the dispatch center then ordered the engineer of a following train to park his train and detach from it before driving up to the crash site and pulling the cars that hadn’t derailed or been damaged too badly, including the dangerous goods cars, back from the wreckage. Not realizing that the points at the end of the double-track section had been damaged by the freight train one of the freight cars derailed as it was pulled over the points, stopping the operation and damaging the track.

Part of the freight cars being pulled away from the wreckage, which can be seen in the background.

As investigators couldn’t find any technical defect with the signaling system or the remains of the trains they had the bodies of the locomotive crews examined once they were recovered. Drugs and alcohol were ruled out, but it was found that Mister Hudson was an alcoholic and heavy smoker who suffered pancreatitis and type 2 diabetes, placing him at elevated risk of a heart attack or stroke. While the investigation couldn’t prove that him suffering either was what caused the accident the investigation did criticize CN’s poor monitoring of employee health, saying that as the medical conditions were known Hudson should have never been in charge of a main line freight train. Interviewing Smith along with other employees, including the crew that had handed the freight train off to Hudson’s crew earlier revealed further problems, something Justice René P. Foisy, the leader of the Commission of Inquiry, called “Railroader Culture”. A climate that prized loyalty to the company and crew as well as productivity at the expense of safety. As an example Foisy lists that freight trains at Edson yard were often handed over “on the fly” by having the train bumble along at slow speed as one crew jumps off and the new crew jumps on. Which is about as negligent as it sounds. While this method saved time and fuel, it was a gross violation of safety regulations which required stationary brake tests after a new crew takes over. CN’s management claimed to be unaware of this practice, even though interviews with employees made it appear to be quite common.

Part of a passenger car burning in the wreckage.

With the locomotives destroyed and the crews dead the investigation had to calculate the final seconds, ending at the conclusion that the trains’ crews could have had visual contact 19 seconds before impact. Obviously that was too late to reduce the speed in a notable way, much less stop. The question why the passenger train didn’t even apply the brakes remained unanswered, as the brakes on the surviving cars were found to be in working order. Turning their attention to systems meant to ensure the drivers pay attention the investigation focused on the deadman’s pedal both trains were equipped with, a pedal that has to be kept depressed for the train to remain in motion. If the engineer releases the pedal an alarm sounds through the cabin, followed a few seconds later by an automatic application of the brakes. However, as part of the mentioned Railroader Culture it had apparently become commonplace for drivers who found the task tiresome to place a heavy object on the pedal to keep it depressed while doing whatever with their feet. While this may have happened in the leading freight locomotive the extend of destruction didn’t allow investigators to inspect the area of the cab the pedal was in or the pedal itself. At the time a more advanced system had already been introduced, the reset safety control (RSC). This system didn’t require a permanent position of a pedal but instead required action at set intervals, like pushing a button every few seconds. However, not all of CN’s rolling stock had this system at the time of the accident. EMD SD40 #5104, the second locomotive on the freight train, did have it, but had been moved to the second position lacked the more spacious comfort cab. Management and union practice was to place the most comfortable locomotive at the head of a train, even if it knowingly meant reducing operational safety.

The partially burned dome car sitting in the wreckage some time after the crash.

Lastly the report criticized a lack of communication between the caboose and locomotive of the freight train, with the last communication between Smith and his coworkers up front happened at Hargwen, quite a bit before the accident. The investigators point out that not the engineer but the conductor is the head of the train crew, so a lack of communication could have alerted him to something being awry. Also, Smith saw himself being criticized for failing to trigger an emergency stop when he failed to establish communications with the locomotive crew. Professional trust and a subjective estimation were seen as insufficient proof for normal operation. In the end no one was criminally charged with any crimes in connection with the accident, with the report urging CN to get rampant negligence among their staff under control, ensuring a necessary minimum of professionalism especially among locomotive crews. It was never determined what exactly happened aboard the freight train, with the official cause being listed as “crew fatigue”. Whether the crew became distracted or fell asleep or something else happened could never be determined for sure.

An investigator standing among the charred and torn wreckage of the passenger train.

Most of the train cars except for the rear Skeena-section of the passenger train and the rear freight cars were written off after the accident, being either damaged beyond repair or destroyed outright in the collision and ensuing fire. Via Rail’s #6300, the sole surviving locomotive, was repaired with the use of a cab from a KCS EMD F7 and remained in service until 2012 when it was donated to a museum. The Super Continental was cancelled in 1990, falling victim to budget cuts, with the last pair of trains running under the brand leaving Vancouver and Winnipeg on the 14th of January 1990. Today The Canadian is the only trans-continental passenger train remaining, connecting Vancouver and Toronto 2–3 times a week depending on the season. The accident remained the worst Canadian railway accident since 1947 until it was surpassed by the Lac Mégantic rail disaster in 2013, which claimed 47 lives when a derailed tanker train sparked a fire that leveled over thirty houses, surpassing both the death toll of the 1947 accident and that of the Hinton collision.

In 2016 a ceremony was held at the site of the crash to celebrate the unveiling of a small memorial, during the unveiling officials of the Province drew anger when their speech, which was attended by relatives of victims, was used for “political grandstanding”, mainly praising the governmental effort in diversifying the economy and creating better jobs rather than admitting oversight and expressing grief. The speech was seen as conveying ignorance, insensitivity and disrespect to those affected by the accident and a few days after the ceremony a public apology was issued for it.

Via Rail #6300 awaiting repairs in June 1986.

Video

The collision was featured in season 3 of the National Geographic Series “Crash Scene Investigation” (called “Mayday” in some markets as it focusses on air traffic disasters). Note that the episode repeatedly shows the trains honking prior to the collision, something decidedly not witnessed/recalled by any of the survivors.

I could only find this mirrored low-quality version of the episode online.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.