Alcohol cited as contributing factor to 2021 Prescott derailment

This drone photo taken by the OPP shows the extent of the damage immediately following the collision of CN trains 149 and 532 on September 2, 2021. One person was seriously injured, two people received minor injuries in the derailment. (Supplied/OPP photo via TSB)

PRESCOTT – Alcohol consumption was cited as the contributing factor to a 2021 head-on train collision in Prescott after a two-and-a-half year investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

On September 2, 2021, a westbound CN freight train (Train 149) collided with a stationary train (Train 532) in a siding just west of the Edwards Street overpass in Prescott. The manually operated switch connecting the siding to the mainline was routed incorrectly. The resulting collision saw one crew member seriously injured while two further crew members received minor injuries. Approximately 1,000 feet of track were damaged, four locomotives and 16 cars derailed in the head-on collision between the two trains.

The TSB released its report March 13, citing alcohol consumption by the Rail Traffic Controller as a contributing factor to the collision.

“The investigation determined that, at the time of the accident, the Rail Traffic Controller had a complex workload, and his attention was diverted to other competing tasks. When he issued permission to train 532 to enter the main track, he assumed that train 149 had already passed the switch. Additionally, he did not obtain the required location report from train 149 before permitting train 532 to access the main track,” said the report.

RTCs are to confirm when a manually operated switch is used. Manually-operated switches do not have sensors that report back to the dispatcher (RTC) office. When the crew of the Toronto-bound freight train realized the switch was routed incorrectly, they applied the emergency brake to attempt to stop the train. The moving train collided with the stationary train at approximately 37 miles per hour.

“Under CN’s Policy to Prevent Workplace Alcohol and Drug Problems, the RTC submitted to a mandatory post-accident breath alcohol test; the results indicated that the RTC was either drinking alcohol at the beginning of his shift or had significant alcohol intake the early morning of or the night before work. The RTC’s performance and level of attention were likely affected by the persistent effects of alcohol consumption. Alcohol impairment involving employees in safety-critical positions can have significant adverse outcomes, affecting the safety of crews, passengers, and the environment.”

According to the report, the RTC’s blood alcohol level was tested approximately two hours after the derailment occurred, as per company policy. At the time of testing, the RTC’s BAC was 0.023. The BAC was estimated to be between 0.044 and 0.069 at the time of the collision, and between 0.064 and 0.109 at the start of his shift.

“The report produced by the chief medical review officer indicated that the RTC was either drinking alcohol at the beginning of his shift or had significant alcohol intake the early morning of or the night before work,” the TSB investigation report said.

According to the TSB, neither the Railway Safety Act or associated regulations restrict the time that alcohol can be consumed by employees before going to work. CN has specific company policies, but employees are to self-assess. In comparison, the Canadian airline industry has specific times prior to work that alcohol and cannabis cannot be consumed.

“Given that in Canada no time period prohibiting the consumption of alcohol by railway employees in safety-critical positions is required, the Board is concerned that such employees could perform their duties while under the influence of alcohol,” the TSB report concluded.

The report, which is considered a Class Three investigation by the TSB due to the nature of the derailment, was to be issued within 450 days from the incident. The TSB report was issued more than double that amount of time.

Portions of the report were leaked online after a February 12 hearing between CN and the Teamsters Union, which represents Rail Traffic Controllers.

At the time of the derailment, traffic on the main CN rail line between Toronto and Montréal was suspended for more than 24 hours until temporary track could be built to reopen the line. VIA Rail service between Toronto and Montréal was also suspended.

Editor’s Note – This story differs from the print story titled “No deadline for TSB report on Prescott derailment.” The TSB released the report after The Leader’s print publication deadline.

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