Martin Pederson says he will never forget the morning of Feb. 8, 1986. At 8:40 a.m. Pederson had just been served bacon and eggs in the dining car of an eastbound Via Rail passenger train near Hinton, Alta., when a westbound CN freight train smashed into it head-on. Pederson was slammed against a wall, then thrown to the opposite end of the car. Knocked unconscious, he next recalls seeing bits of steel and track coming through the coach as the oncoming freight engine plowed into the wreckage. “I jumped out of the way and saw a piece of steel slice off a woman’s leg,” said Pederson, 65. “The engine took the dining car’s corner off and blew a window out in my face. The blast opened a hole in the side of the coach. I dived through it, lost consciousness again and came to with the coach on its side and burning. All you could hear were the cries of passengers trapped in the coaches.”
The crash killed 23 people, including two crew members of the CN freight train, who apparently ignored two sets of warning lights ordering them to stay off the main line as the Via train approached. Last week Transport Minister John Crosbie released the results of a 10-month inquiry by Alberta Judge René Foisy into the crash. His chief conclusions: that the crash was caused by the CN crew’s “lack of alertness” and by the absence of up-to-date warning devices in the
lead locomotive. But Foisy did much more than simply assign blame for the crash. His report is a stunning indictment of the “culture of the railroader,” a culture, he said, that places more value on loyalty and endurance than safe operation.
Crosbie promptly endorsed Foisy’s recommendations, including a call for wider use of existing warning devices and swift introduction of new computerized train monitoring systems which would automatically override crew members when they ignore instructions. He also announced plans to introduce a new Railway Safety Act this spring and to establish an independent agency to investigate all rail, air and marine accidents. Crosbie gave railway union leaders and managers 60 days to propose solutions to the problems that Foisy identified.
Railway unionists were stung by Foisy’s criticism. But both the union and CN Rail said that they would comply with its recommendations and urged railwaymen to meet Crosbie’s challenge. Still, for CN, new regulations will not close the book on the Hinton disaster. Several passengers on the Via train, including Martin Pederson, plan to sue the company for its part in the crash. The last chapter of the Hinton disaster may yet be written in court.
-MARC CLARK with MONIQUE ROY in Ottawa and JOHN HOWSE in Calgary
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.