Archive for December, 2010

All aboard the death express

December 28, 2010

‘All aboard the death express’ is installment 7 in the investigation into The Turcot Train Tragedy.

by Jack Locke

Chuck, we have a problem.

Chuck Strahl, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities

I am referring to Chuck Strahl, Canada’s Minister responsible for railway transportation.

As I poke my journalistic nose into the tragic deaths of Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet, and Ricardo Conesa by a VIA Rail passenger train at 3 A.M. on October 31, 2010, trying to understand what happened and why, I am getting a broad and disturbing picture of why this mishap occurred.

The majority of railway-related deaths in Canada happen to persons officially classified as “trespassers.” It’s a term used by railways to describe persons who are uninvited guests. It’s a term wrongfully used by police and government investigators to describe injured victims on railway property.

Between the years 2005 and 2010, a total of 427 Canadians died in rail accidents who were labeled as “trespassers.” They account for about two-thirds of all deaths caused by trains in our country.

Yet, in those same 5 years, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada(TSB) investigated none of those deaths. Not one. They conducted 63 formal investigations into rail incidents during that time period, but seemed to ignore the category with the largest number of deaths.

It is not an accidental oversight.

It is an institutional disregard for the lives of members of the public who are killed by railway operations. In some cases, railway negligence may be covered up by government complicity through blaming the deaths on trespassing.

The federal Railway Safety Act lists four objectives, two of which are:

1. To promote and provide for the safety of the public and personnel, and the protection of property and the environment, in the operation of railways; and

2. To recognize the responsibility of railway companies in ensuring the safety of their operations.

A 1998 government review of the Railway Safety Act said that the two major categories of railway deaths, crossings and trespassing, need to be better addressed.

“Crossings and trespassing should be afforded a higher priority and an overall strategy should be developed beyond the current plan in Direction 2006 in order to tackle these problems which now account for most railway-related fatalities.”

That was 1998. Today, as the Transportation Safety Board looks only one way, away from promoting safety of the entire public, these preventable fatalities will continue.

Chuck, do you hear me?

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Eight seconds to forever

December 26, 2010

‘Eight seconds to forever’ is installment 6 in The Turcot Train Tragedy–the investigation into the deaths of Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet, and Ricardo Conesa, killed by a VIA Rail passenger train on the morning of October 31 in Montreal.

by Jack Locke

Time. It was in short supply on the early morning of Oct. 31, 2010.

The VIA Rail train that surprised a group of five Montreal-area teens had been delayed in leaving its place of departure by approximately three hours. It was scheduled to depart Toronto at 6:35 P.M., Oct. 30 and arrive in Montreal at 12:16 A.M. on Oct. 31.

Entering its final leg towards Montreal’s Central Station at 3 A.M., the train approached the Turcot tunnel at a reported speed of 113 kilometres per hour(70 miles per hour in railway measurement.) The train’s locomotive event recorder would have captured exact details of its speed.

At a minimum, federal rules require the event recorder to monitor and record the time, distance, speed, brake pipe pressure, throttle position, emergency brake application, independent brake cylinder pressure, and application of the horn signal. These indicators monitor the train’s operations and help investigators analyze accidents.

If the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s initial preliminary report is accurate, the train was travelling at 70 MPH when it struck the three young men. If the engineer had seen the group of five teens 800 feet directly ahead of the train(the distance a headlight is required to illuminate a person ahead of the train)the engineer would have had, at most, eight seconds to secure a safe outcome. Only two of the teens were lucky enough to take evasive action.

“…headlight(s) on locomotives other than in designated service must be aligned to centreline in the horizontal plane and depressed in the vertical plane to strike the rail at 244 metres (800 feet) ahead of the locomotive in the direction of travel,” says Transport Canada’s railway locomotive inspection and safety rule.

Eight seconds—or less—was the amount of time the engineer would have had to alert the teens and for them to react.

It’s not very much time, especially if there is any delay in the reaction of the engineer.

A 1999 Transportation Safety Board investigation into a train accident at Thamesville, Ontario documented the swift reactions of a VIA Rail engineer who averted a worse tragedy.

Travelling at 130 kilometres per hour, the engineer within 5 seconds of recognizing an open track switch applied the train’s emergency brakes, shut down the engine to prevent a possible fire, and sent a distress call to an oncoming train. But the engineer did not have enough time for his own safety.

Due to the incorrectly-set switch, the train crashed into 3 parked tanker cars containing ammonium nitrate. Engineer Don Blain and engineer-in-training Kevin Lihou were both killed.

At these high speeds there is little time for reaction. Transport Canada’s rules say eight seconds should have been enough time to alert the five people on the track at the Turcot tunnel.

It wasn’t.

Let there be light

December 23, 2010

by Jack Locke

In the investigation into the deaths of 3 young men killed by a VIA Rail train on Oct. 31 near the Turcot tunnel in Montreal, the issue of light must be illuminated.

Here’s the situation: Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet, Ricardo Conesa and two other teens are on CN-owned tracks at 3 A.M. A late-running VIA passenger train is barreling along at 70 miles-per-hour to deliver a small trainload of people to Montreal’s Central Station. The train kills the three named individuals. Why?

It was an accident, but why did the three young men not have adequate warning to step to safety?

In the United States, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration sets rules for the headlights of trains.

“Each headlight shall be arranged to illuminate a person at least 800 feet ahead and in front of the headlight,” states the safety standard.

The idea is to allow both the train’s engineer and the person in front of the headlight to take action to avoid a disaster. It’s an eminently reasonable safety measure.

In 1936, an American firefighter, Jeremiah D. Kennelly, came up with the idea of installing an oscillating light that moves to allow greater warning for those in the path of his fire truck. His invention was picked up by the railway industry. It’s called a gyrating light.

The website trainweb.org provides much information on these lights.

“Gyrating lights are effective warning devices. They instantly show the exact spot where danger lies. The beam color and wide sweeping action command immediate attention. A visual signal can be perceived long before an audible one. A moving beam of light can cover a much larger area than a stationary beam. These lights are especially useful in rural areas at grade crossings. They also are useful in areas of high noise levels where background noise might negate the sounds of the oncoming locomotive,” says the trainweb website.

The location where the three teens were killed has been described as an area of high noise levels where multiple freeways perch overhead.

I’ve not been able to ascertain what kind of light the VIA Rail train had in operation on the morning of Oct. 31. I have requested a copy of the VIA Rail accident report from their media liaison Elizabeth Huart. She said she would get back to me to let me know whether I could see a copy.

According to lawyer and University of Ottawa law professor, Michel W. Drapeau, the report should be available for viewing.

“VIA RAIL is subject to the ATIA(Access to Information Act.) The accident report is accessible under the law as the ‘investigation’ is now completed,” writes Drapeau in an email.

While there may be some exemptions for disclosing information contained in the accident report, now is not the time for secrecy nor darkness.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This ends installment 5 of the Investigation into the deaths of Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet, and Ricardo Conesa—an accident that shook our nation.

Witness on fateful train tells her story

December 22, 2010

The Canadian body responsible for investigating rail accidents, the Transportation Safety Board, has said they will not investigate the deaths of 3 young men struck by a VIA Rail passenger train on the early morning of Oct. 31. The once-delayed train was travelling at 112 kilometres per hour when it struck the teens. This independent investigation hopes to find the reasons for this unexplained calamity. Why were these three persons unable to avoid the train?

by Jack Locke

“What a tragedy.”

These were the first words spoken to me by Eve*, a passenger on the VIA Rail train that struck and killed Montreal-area teenagers Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet and Ricardo Conesa on Oct. 31.

Eve, 42, was returning to Montreal after participating in a performance-art festival. She is an accomplished artist who was invited to perform there. She was pleased to attend the festival but looking forward to returning home to Montreal. Her train left Toronto at about 6:35 P.M. on Oct. 30 but was immediately delayed.

“After two minutes it stopped,” she says. “They said there was an accident and we must wait until the track is free.”

The train finally recommenced its journey at about 9 that evening, says Eve. Because of the delay she emailed ahead to notify a colleague that she would not be able to make a 10 A.M. commitment the next morning.

At 3 A.M., as the train entered the Turcot area of Montreal, Eve was startled. She had been awake the entire trip but was momentarily resting her eyes.

Ticket shows train's scheduled 12:16 A.M. arrival time

“I don’t know if I noticed the train braking before or after I felt a bump. I felt we were passing over something. I thought it was an animal.”

“I heard no train whistle, at least not that I can remember,” she says.

According to Eve, the train stopped with a portion extending out of the east part of the Turcot tunnel, leaving some passenger cars remaining in the blackened tunnel.

File photo showing Turcot tunnel area where VIA train came to rest.

“Eventually an attendant made an announcement saying ‘I am sorry, there’s been a fatality and that we need to stop,’ ” she recalls.

Eve asked a train attendant for information and was told that the coroner had been called.

“The crew members looked white and I thought they were going to have a nervous breakdown,” she worried. Eve had been previously told at least one member of the crew had started work at 7 A.M. the day before.

The worst part of the train trip, Eve will never forget. It was not the sight of anything, but the feel and the sound.

“The biggest feel was when we went over a body. I heard sounds like branches. It was bones.”

* Eve’s real name has been removed from this story upon her request.

Transportation Safety Board fails Dylan, Mitch and Ricardo

December 21, 2010

by Jack Locke

It is bad enough that a train killed Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet and Ricardo Conesa in the early morning hours of October 31, 2010, but it is truly sad when our national safety board wrongfully accuses the boys of illegalities.

The TSB conducted a brief preliminary investigation. Their summary findings indicated that:

“VIA passenger train P668-31-30, proceeding eastward and approaching the Turcot tunnel at mile 4.23 at 70 MPH on the South main track of CN’s Montreal Subdivision, struck and fatally injured 3 young men of a group of 5 trespassers on the Railway’s right of way…”

However, calling the dead boys trespassers is an error in law, and an error pursuant to the TSB’s marching orders.

“In making its findings as to the causes and contributing factors of a transportation occurrence, it is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability,” says the TSB mandate. CLICK HERE to read the full TSB mandate.

In labeling the persons who were on the tracks as “trespassers” the TSB is at the earliest stages attributing fault and prejudice.

Normally, the laws of trespass state that a person occupying another’s property must be informed of the trespass. Thereafter, if the person does not remove themselves, a charge of trespass may be laid.

This was not the case with the persons on the railway property.

For the TSB to impute criminal behaviour on individuals prior to allowing for due process is a violation of the TSB’s mandate and is akin to libel.

This basic error by the TSB investigator is the likely reason the TSB decided not to conduct an investigation into the tragic deaths of three innocent boys.

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This is the third installment of an independent investigation into the tragic railway accident that killed three young men in Montreal on October 31, 2010. Your comments and information are welcomed.

Transportation Safety Board ducks investigation

December 19, 2010


by Jack Locke

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board(TSB) will not conduct an investigation into the deaths of three Montreal area teenagers who were killed by a three-hour-late VIA Rail passenger train on the morning of October 31.

“We’re not going to investigate,” says Julie Leroux, a TSB media officer. She says the TSB decides whether or not to conduct investigations on a “case-by-case basis.”

“We only investigate if we think we’ll learn something new that will affect safety,” adds Leroux.

This is almost verbatim what Leroux is reported to have said in a Canadian Press article in the 2008 airplane crash, piloted by Bare Naked Ladies’ Ed Robertson.

“Spokeswoman Julie Leroux said the TSB will launch a probe ‘only if there is something new to learn from the occurrence – if not, we don’t investigate,’ ” wrote The Canadian Press.

Maybe I miss the whole idea of “investigation.” How can anyone know in advance whether something will be learned prior to an investigation?

Obviously, when three teens die by a VIA Rail train in Montreal, the TSB expects to learn nothing new that will affect safety.

The Canadian Transportation Accident Investigation and Safety Board Act provides the legal framework that governs TSB activities.

Our (the TSB) mandate is to advance transportation safety in the marine, pipeline, rail and air modes of transportation by:

* conducting independent investigations, including public inquiries when necessary, into selected transportation occurrences in order to make findings as to their causes and contributing factors;
* identifying safety deficiencies, as evidenced by transportation occurrences;
* making recommendations designed to eliminate or reduce any such safety deficiencies; and
* reporting publicly on our investigations and on the findings in relation thereto.

When the TSB ducks their mandate, Lockeblog, for now, will assume that noble mandate to independently review the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet and Ricardo Conesa.

Perverse police pronouncement shows need for better training

December 18, 2010

by Jack Locke



I have decided to investigate the tragic deaths of three Montréal youths by a VIA Rail passenger train in the Turcot area of Montréal on the early morning of Oct. 31, 2010.

My theory is that this was a preventable accident—as most human fatalities are, in theory, preventable. But the goal of this investigation is to see what can be done to prevent future tragedies like this one from happening.

The three dead were Dylan Ford, Mitchell Bracken-Guenet and Ricardo Conesa. Two other youngsters narrowly escaped the ordeal as the three-hour-late train on destination to Montréal from Toronto was entering its final 10 kilometre leg into Montréal’s Central Station.

I shall be interviewing a number of people associated with this event in order to understand how such a horrible incident could occur. One of my first interviews has uncovered a disturbing fact.

Raphael Bergeron, SPVM spokesperson

I spoke with Montréal Police Service media spokesperson, Raphael Bergeron. It appears the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal(SPVM) have closed their investigation of the incident.

“We have closed our investigation. It appears it’s a sad accident,” shrugs Bergeron.

But I dig deeper to see if he has any less-obvious information to share. When I ask whether it is normal for Montréal Police to investigate an accident on CN property, he gives me a surprising answer.

“I can’t answer that,” he says. Then I probe and ask why charges were not laid.

“In essence, they were breaking the law,” he asserts.

There is no doubt the young men were on CN property. And clearly they were unable to avoid the train. And these youngsters were likely far more quick and agile than yours truly. But it is perverse for the police to close an investigation into a multiple-death incident for the flippant (and debatable) suggestion that these men “were breaking the law.”

This is not something a police spokesman should be uttering. But I suspect he was merely passing along the sentiments from a fellow officer who gave him this unsound sound bite.

It is reminiscent of an early CBC report that said police were considering laying charges against the two surviving youth.

Bergeron’s final advice to me is that I should talk to Montréal’s coroner. I am looking forward to that.

***************************************
This is installment one in the investigation to prevent similar unnecessary deaths in the Great City of Montréal. Comments and information are welcomed.

Petition to stop Quebec tax gouging

December 15, 2010


The Quebec government imposes a provincial sales tax upon goods and services purchased, after the federal Goods and Services Tax has been applied. This tax on a tax raises the current PST from 7.5% to an actual rate of 7.85%.

I think this is illegal, unauthorized under the law, and plain wrong. I asked Quebec Minister of Finance, Raymond Bachand, to address the issue, and his department answered that all is kosher, according to law. I disagree.

Thus, I have requested four MNAs, Pierre Curzi, Sylvie Roy, Amir Khadr, and Jacques Chagnon to table a petition in the National Assembly to allow Quebec citizens to sign the petition on the government’s website and to have the government be accountable.

The additional taxation is applied upon charges by Hydro Quebec. Thus, the government derives an annual surcharge from Hydro Quebec, provincial sales tax on electricity bills, and a tax on the GST amount levied on bills. A triple taxation. For unemployed people, people on limited incomes, the tax on tax creates hardship.

If you are willing to contact your MNA seeking support for this petition, please let me know at: <jjlocke1957@gmail.com> Thank you. Here is the proposed petition:

WHEREAS the Quebec Sales Tax is applied upon the combined total of a good or service and the federal Goods and Services Tax;

WHEREAS under the current economic situation individuals and families can benefit from additional money in their pockets; and

WHEREAS a tax upon a tax is excessive and oppressive;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT:

The undersigned citizens of Quebec request that the Government of Quebec cease applying the Provincial Sales Tax on top of the federal Goods and Services Tax.