The RCMP’s major crimes unit in British Columbia has opened a criminal investigation into a fatal runaway train crash and allegations of a coverup at Canadian Pacific Railway, following a derailment that killed three crew members near Field, B.C., in February 2019.
“This is going to be a complex investigation,” RCMP Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said, adding that the probe is being opened after consultation with B.C.’s prosecutor’s office.
“We went to them and just had a discussion with them about the potential for a criminal investigation, and they agreed with us that potentially there could be some criminality here and that it warranted further investigation,” she said.
The RCMP probe is welcome news for the families of the crew who fear a coverup by CP in the case.
“Oh my gosh, we couldn’t be happier,” said Pam Fraser, the mother of conductor Dylan Paradis who last month filed official complaints with the Mounties, begging them to look into potential negligence in the crash and obstruction by the railway.
“This particularly was completely preventable. Never should have happened this way. So to get answers — we could get closure. That’s huge.”
Fraser and the RCMP credit CBC’s The Fifth Estate for unearthing evidence pointing to major problems in the crash, including allegations by a former CP police officer of a coverup.
Until now, beyond federal safety and labour investigations, the only police force to formally investigate the crash was CP’s own federally authorized Canadian Pacific Police Service (CPPS).
A former CPPS officer involved in the case said he quit after being obstructed, suspecting a coverup — something CP discounts as the claim from a disgruntled ex-employee.
WATCH | Former CPPS officer says crash investigation was obstructed:
‘It’s kinda a gong show’
Late on the night of Feb. 3, 2019, engineer Andrew Dockrell, 56, conductor Dylan Paradis, 33, and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer, 26, took over a train parked at the top of the mountain east of Field, B.C. — stopped without handbrakes in wind chills dipping below –30 C.
Extreme weather had been causing problems for days along one of CP’s most perilous mountain passes that’s seen 26 derailments and runaways in the last 26 years.
Waldenberger-Bulmer, in his final texts to his best friend, had an inkling that something was wrong with Train 301.
“Minus 30 right now and with wind it’s like 40,” he texted.
“I’m in Field right now powers out at the bunk house trains f–kin’ delayed emergency on the big hill so much fun haha…. Almost a runaway train…. I’m relieving a crew…. It’s kinda a gong show right now.”
His friend replied with concern, “Don’t want to lose a train bro…. Keep those big metal buses on the tracks.
“Haha that’s the goal,” Waldenberger-Bulmer replied.
It was his last contact with his friend, moments before boarding Train 301.
String of failures
The cold caused Train 301’s air brakes to lose pressure, and without the additional handbrakes, it rolled away down the mountain reaching speeds in excess of 80 km/h, before derailing into the Kicking Horse River early on Feb. 4.
In an 18-month investigation, CBC’s The Fifth Estate revealed a string of failures as CP kept trains running despite extreme freezing and snowy conditions:
CP Rail has declined to comment on CBC’s specific findings and is appealing the directive by labour officials over the hazards of operating on the mountain near Field, B.C.
“CP will co-operate with the RCMP in its investigation,” company spokesperson Jeremy Berry told CBC News in a statement on Wednesday.
“From the beginning, CP has stated that it is available and willing to discuss relevant matters with the RCMP, the Transportation Safety Board and all other agencies involved. As the matter is under investigation, CP has no further comment.”
Family member files formal complaints
The RCMP won’t say what specific offences they are investigating but acknowledge receiving formal complaints from a family member last month requesting an investigation into both criminal negligence and obstruction.
“We’re going to look at all aspects of the evidence,” Staff Sgt. Shoihet told CBC News. “We’ll be conducting witness statements, looking at the investigation from the ground up.”
WATCH | RCMP announce probe of fatal 2019 Canadian Pacific train crash:
Rob Stewart, a workplace health and safety expert who has worked closely with the families, said he’s thrilled the RCMP are now involved, adding that police in general need to do more in cases of workplace fatalities.
“Police show up on scene as part of a 911 call. They look for what they’re used to with the normal criminality: Was anybody shot, knifed in the back, intentionally run over? If they don’t see that, they basically say there’s nothing suspicious to see here and then move on,” Stewart said.
“Hopefully now with this, when they show up on scene, they look a little bit deeper. They realize their responsibility and they start conducting fulsome investigations.”
NDP transport critic Niki Ashton, who recently sponsored a petition to Parliament, said the RCMP investigation is welcome news — albeit almost two years after the incident.
“In honour of that second anniversary that’s coming up of the deaths of these three workers, I hope that this investigation will move quickly,” the Manitoba MP told CBC News.
Ashton said she hopes the case will lead to greater safety and scrutiny for Canada’s railways, “whether it’s getting rid of rail police forces and ensuring that rail companies are not pressuring rail workers to work in unsafe conditions.”
The families say that despite the time it’s taken for the RCMP to begin their investigation, they are content to wait months — even years — for answers and accountability.
“It’s not the time that it’s going to take to have the investigation completed. If they are dogged and motivated … that’s what counts,” Pam Fraser said. “I’m good with that. Whatever it takes.”