Families of three rail workers killed in a crash in the Rockies of eastern B.C. almost two years ago are calling on the prime minister to intervene after a former Canadian Pacific Railway police officer alleged his superiors obstructed his investigation.
This week, relatives launched a petition and video appeals to Justin Trudeau asking for an independent investigation into the crash of CP Train 301. They also want an end to Canada’s two largest railways running their own corporate police forces.
“I’m begging you, prime minister,” says Ethel Nesbitt, grandmother of deceased conductor Dylan Paradis, in the video campaign produced by the rail workers union. “I don’t have much time left on this earth to fight for the truth. But I do feel I’d have failed Dylan if we don’t get something done and cleared up.”
On the night of Feb. 3, 2019, CP Train 301 made an emergency stop on a mountain near Field, B.C. The two-kilometre train sat parked for nearly three hours without handbrakes in -28 C weather when it started rolling down the mountainside. The train quickly picked up speed before 99 loaded grain cars derailed and the lead locomotive crashed in the Kicking Horse River.
The three crew members who had just taken over control of the train as it started rolling — Paradis, engineer Andy Dockrell and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer — were killed.
The Canadian Pacific Police Service (CPPS) conducted a month-long investigation that focused on the actions of the crew leading up to the crash.
What the investigation didn’t look at was the role of managers that night, including fateful decisions to operate in such frigid temperatures and to not apply handbrakes during the emergency stop. The probe didn’t look at any potential criminal negligence on the part of the company that may have played a part in the disaster.
In a Fifth Estate documentary that aired earlier this year, former CPPS officer Mark Tataryn, who was an investigator on the case, said superiors blocked him from looking into the maintenance history of the train, the orders given by managers that night, and whether safety policies were followed on the mountain just east of Field, which has seen 26 derailments and runaways in the past 26 years.
“I would say it was some type of coverup, or attempt to not provide information that might be damning,” Tataryn said.
WATCH | The Fifth Estate’s documentary on the crash:
Regina-based lawyer Tavengwa Runyowa, who represents three families of rail workers killed on the job, including the family of Paradis, says for criminal investigations to have any integrity, they must be independent, thorough, and there must be “no influence on the investigators whatsoever.”
“When someone is coming to a police officer and saying, ‘You need to stop this line of inquiry. You need to limit the scope of this investigation to the victims on that train and not look at corporate policy that might have caused it,’ that could amount to obstruction of justice,” Runyowa said.
When contacted by The Fifth Estate this week, CPPS Chief Al Sauve declined to comment on Tataryn’s coverup allegation. But in December 2019, he said Tataryn was not the primary investigator on the case and that Tataryn resigned amidst allegations of misconduct.
“It would be misleading to your audience to take this disgruntled employee’s comments at face value,” Sauve said in a letter to the CBC late last year.
Tataryn, who is now a constable with the RCMP detachment in Golden, B.C., says CP is simply trying to discredit him, and that his frustration with the Train 301 case is one of the reasons he left the company.
WATCH | Former CPPS officer says crash investigation was obstructed:
For more than a century, both CP and CN Rail have had their own federally authorized police forces, paid for by the companies. It falls to these railway police to investigate possible criminality along Canada’s vast rail networks.
Frustrated there’s been no independent police investigation of CP Train 301, Paradis’s mother, Pam Fraser, picked up the phone last month and called the RCMP and filed two formal complaints asking them to step in.
“It should not be up to us, the grieving family members, to pursue justice for our loved ones…. We should be allowed to grieve,” Fraser said in an interview.
Earlier this year, The Fifth Estate revealed a string of failures in the lead-up to the crash involving the brakes, inspections, and the apparent failure to follow CP’s own policy for the dangerous mountain line.
CP has declined to comment on the findings as the company awaits results of a probe by federal safety officials.
Fraser is now asking the RCMP to conduct a criminal investigation into the cause of the crash and take a separate look into whether CP and its police force are covering up the railway’s own negligence.
This week, federal NDP transport critic Niki Ashton sponsored the petition to Parliament on behalf of the families.
“We have to put an end to this archaic notion that rail companies, some of the biggest corporations in our country, can police themselves,” Ashton said in an interview from her home in Thompson, Man. “You know, it’s not the 1880s anymore. It’s 2020.”
She said there needs to be an independent investigation. “And the prime minister has the power to act on this.”
WATCH | NDP MP Niki Ashton on why an independent investigation is needed:
Two different government agencies have also investigated the crash. The Transportation Safety Board ruled out crew error as the cause, and federal labour officials concluded CP “failed to identify and assess the hazards” on the mountain, a determination CP is appealing. But neither of those agencies have police powers to look into potential criminal negligence by the company.
The RCMP have opened a file based on Fraser’s complaints and are reviewing the case but have yet to launch a formal investigation.
Tataryn gave CBC News a series of interviews in November 2019 before joining the RCMP, detailing claims that he was obstructed from looking into potential negligence.
Tataryn says he was prevented from interviewing managers and other witnesses and was denied access to train safety records and audio recordings, including the orders given by managers directing the crews the night Train 301 ran away down the mountain.
He also claims there were other irregularities, including the disappearance of his case files from the CPPS computer system. Tataryn says he replaced them twice but came to fear the files were being deliberately sabotaged.
“That was not common practice at all,” he said in an interview last year.
- CP’s handling of the case is the focus of Runaway Train Update: Policing Their Own airing on CBC’s The Fifth Estate on Monday at 9 p.m.
After noticing files had disappeared a third time, he began to safeguard information in case it was being permanently wiped from the CPPS system, he said.
The CPPS investigation of Train 301 was closed a month after the crash and days after Tataryn wrote to supervisors complaining that a lawyer present in employee interviews, paid for by the company, was hampering his investigation.
CBC put all of these specific claims to CPPS Chief Al Sauve. He has repeatedly offered “no comment” and maintains Tataryn is a disgruntled ex-employee.
CP’s police service, which dates back to the late 1890s, has all the powers of a regular force without any independent oversight or legislation to govern its operations.
But there are mounting calls for reform, including from within the railways themselves.
“Governance and accountability of the Canadian Pacific Police Service falls far below the modern societal expectation,” Ivan McClelland wrote in 2009, when he was chief of the CPPS.
He called for legislative oversight of railway police to address concerns about conflicts of interest and perceptions CP had its own “private army.” But his calls went unanswered.
For Les Paradis, who lost his son Dylan in the wreckage of CP Train 301, the lack of independence of railway police is more than a mere theoretical concern.
“This should have been treated as a crime scene from the start, and I want the RCMP to investigate,” he said.
“My family has been shattered. I want the truth and I want justice for my son.”