10 of Canada’s worst train accidents

Canada's vast railroad network has borne witness to many deadly crashes prior to the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

Originally published in the Maclean’s Book of Lists, Vol I:

Canada was forged into a nation through the building of railroads, but those vast stretches of iron rail have also borne witness to many deadly crashes prior to the derailment and explosion that ravaged Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

1. St-Hilaire train disaster (June 29, 1864): With an estimated 99 casualties, it still stands as Canada’s deadliest train accident. A Grand Trunk train with more than 350 passengers was travelling from Quebec City to Montreal when it failed to stop as it approached a bridge over the Rivière Richelieu near today’s Mont-St-Hilaire, Que. Both the conductor and the engineer failed to see the red light more than a kilometre ahead warning the train that the bridge was raised to allow boats to pass through. It plunged into the river below. Many of the passengers aboard were newly arrived German and Polish immigrants.

2. Mississauga train derailment (Nov. 10, 1979): More than 250,000 residents in suburban Toronto were forced from their homes when a freight train carrying caustic, explosive and poisonous chemicals derailed near the intersection of Dundas Street and Mavis Road in Mississauga, Ont., just before midnight. Several tank cars filled with propane exploded, while other tankers spilled styrene, toluene, caustic soda, and chlorine onto the tracks and into the air. Fearful that the explosions and fire could trigger a deadly chlorine gas cloud, authorities ordered a massive evacuation. Amazingly, no injuries were reported. The derailment left the city deserted for several days. The scale of the evacuation was only surpassed in 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.

3. Hinton train disaster (Feb. 8, 1986): Travelling at 96 km/h at the time of impact, the head-on collision between a Canadian National Railway freight train and a Via Rail passenger train left 23 dead and 95 injured. A commission of inquiry concluded the CN employees ignored signals to stop and failed to “follow established railway operating rules.” It also condemned CN’s “railroader” culture that ignored safety regulations, which were beefed up in the aftermath of the crash.

4. Baptiste Creek train collision (Oct. 27, 1854): It was early morning when an express passenger train of the Great Western Railway—running more than five hours late—emerged from thick fog at Baptiste Creek, Ont., and collided with a 15-car gravel train repairing the track. The night watchman at the Baptiste Creek station advised the engineer of the gravel train that the passenger train had already passed and that it was safe to travel onto the main line. The accident killed 52 and injured 48 others. At the time it was the worst rail disaster in North America.

5. Dugald train disaster (Sept. 1, 1947): A passenger train headed westbound crashed into an eastbound train at the Dugald, Man., station because it failed to heed Canadian National Railway procedure and turn onto a siding. Thirty-one lives were lost. Onboard were vacationers from the Minaki region of northwestern Ontario. Due to the strict rationing of steel during the Second World War, old wooden passenger cars had been kept in service. Most of the victims died in the resulting fire, fed by the old cars’ gas illumination.

6. Spanish River derailment (Jan. 21, 1910): The combination of excessive speed and a faulty rail caused the CPR passenger train No. 7 to jump the tracks as it approached the railway crossing at the Spanish River west of Sudbury. Both the first-class coach and dining car plunged into the icy river while others careened down the embankment. The derailment killed 43.

7. Canoe River train accident (Nov. 21, 1950): A westbound train carrying Canadian troops en route to training for the Korean War collided with an eastbound train near Canoe River, B.C. The crash cost 17 soldiers their lives as well as the two-man locomotive crew from each train. CNR telegraph operator Alfred “Jack” Atherton was charged with manslaughter for allegedly sending an incomplete message to the troop train regard-ing the location of the other train. Atherton, who was defended by John Diefenbaker, then a criminal lawyer, was found not guilty.

8. Desjardins Canal train disaster (March 12, 1857): A broken axle on the engine caused the Great Western passenger train to leave the tracks and crash through the bridge deck of a timber suspension bridge, into the Desjardin Canal outside Hamilton. A workman at the Hamilton station who witnessed the accident reported he “saw the steam suddenly stop, and a sort of dust arise. In a second there was no train to be seen.” The derailment killed 59 people and injured 18 others.

9. Almonte troop and passenger train collision (Dec. 27, 1942): As a late-arriving Sunday night local train sat at the station in Almonte, Ont., a troop train from Red Deer, Alta., carrying soldiers bound for Britain, crashed into the rear cars, which were made of wood, killing 39 people and injuring more than 200. Fearing he would be blamed for the collision, John Howard, conductor of the troop train, committed suicide by jumping into the Rideau River. As a result of the crash, the Board of Transport recommended that a protection signal west of Almonte be erected.

10. Wanstead train disaster (Dec. 27, 1902): In an effort to make up lost time due to poor visibility and heavy travel, the westbound Pacific express train No. 5 of the Grand Trunk line increased its speed as it approached the station at Wanstead, Ont. At the same time a lumbering freight train was slowly moving eastbound, having been told to pull into the siding at Wanstead to allow the express to pass. It didn’t make it off the main track in time. Blizzard conditions prevented both trains from seeing each other until the last minute and the head-on collision killed 31.

Sources: Canadian Encyclopedia; McCord Museum; City of Mississauga; Town of Hinton; Chatham Daily News; Ottawa Citizen; Veterans Affairs Canada; Daily Observer; Canadian Oil Journal; New York Times