Thursday, November 10, 2022

Buffer Cars in the News

On November 9, reporter for the Quebec media newspaper network Le Soleil Gilles Gagne published this article. I was pleased to collaborate with Gilles. He was knowledgeable about the issue, and I was able to provide some additional information and context. This article is an important step forward in bringing the issue forward to a wider audience of not only rail enthusiasts, but passengers and taxpayers. Since the article is from the Le Soleil webpage with its limited number of available views, and originally published in French, I've translated and reproduced it here with permission. What follows is the published French version translated to English. Light edits that I made for clarity are in [brackets]. 

To me, the article is especially important because it documents the detailed questions that the reporter has asked VIA. The lack of answers to those questions is perhaps more revealing than the responses that have been given.

By Gilles Gagne

[Do] you find that some of the Via Rail passenger trains have become longer in the last month? That's true, but these trains are not carrying more people. They are longer because a structural failure detected on some stainless steel cars has prompted the common carrier to place empty buffer cars at the ends of the trains, following the locomotive(s)!

The problem, likely a consequence of wear and tear rather than a manufacturing defect, was detected prior to the pandemic, but Via Rail's communications department refuses to say when and who identified it. The federal company also refuses to say why it did not clearly inform the public of this way of operating a significant portion of its trains.

According to information gathered by Le Soleil, the structural failure takes the form of a crack of a few centimeters very close to the bogies of the cars, including the wheels, at a place where the stainless steel was welded to the regular steel covering the upper part of these bogies. The problem affects sleeping cars, coaches, dining cars and baggage cars.

Eric Gagnon, an author and blogger on his passion for rail transportation, says there are currently six stainless steel train sets operating in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor on varying routes. About the same number of trains also feature the addition of buffer cars elsewhere in the country.

"In the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, you're going to see these trains between Quebec City and Montreal, Montreal and Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, and then between Ottawa and Toronto. They're also on the routes between Toronto and Windsor," says Gagnon, who has written four books on Via Rail, "but [I'm not connected to VIA], I assure you.

Trains between Montreal and Abitibi, Montreal and the Saguenay, Montreal and Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver (the famous Canadian), Prince George and Prince Rupert, as well as the train between Winnipeg and Churchill, are notably affected by the inclusion of buffer cars in their [consists].

Old rolling stock
Almost all of Via Rail's stainless steel cars are from the 1950s. They make up roughly one-third of Via Rail's fleet of about 500 passenger cars, between 175 and 180 units, plus a few [RDCs]. The main manufacturer of all these stainless steel units is the American firm Budd.

The directive to use the buffer cars was issued on October 12, two days after Thanksgiving, even though Via Rail has known about the structural problem for at least three years. Trains using Renaissance and LRC cars are not affected by the requirement to add buffer cars, as no structural cracks have been found in these [cars].

Via Rail has not issued a press release outlining its new operating procedures. To Le Soleil, the company responds in general terms that "based on the results of an external engineering report, which confirms that our stainless steel cars can be safely used under normal operating conditions, VIA Rail has implemented a plan to proactively address structural issues with its aging stainless steel car fleet and ensure continued safe rail operations."

Eric Gagnon comments almost daily on the issue on his blog, Trackside Treasure, followed mostly by other rail enthusiasts in Canada. It was through contacts in the railroad community and observations [by him] and these enthusiasts about structural problems with some of the carrier's cars that he was able to document [the details].

"It's certainly not from Via Rail, which is keeping a lid on the matter. What I find frustrating is that nothing clear has been communicated by Via Rail about this. We pay for Via Rail, as taxpayers or users. It's a safety issue for the passengers and we don't see anything published about it," said Eric Gagnon.

"I started talking about it more openly on my blog (on Oct. 13) and that may have been what prompted Via Rail to consult with Transport Canada about what needed to be done publicly to talk about the buffer cars," Gagnon says.

Transport Canada, which has a division that deals with rail safety, issued a ministerial order on October 19 that went almost completely unnoticed.

This order provides some guidance on how to place buffer cars in a train to minimize the impact on passenger cars in the event of a collision. The document recommends that crash simulations be conducted by experts and that stress tests be conducted on four cars with cracks to see if they expand. A preliminary report on these tests is due January 31, 2023.

Experts are also to perform compression tests on two cars with cracks to see if they meet the requirements of the Association of American Railroads, a regulatory authority. Here, a preliminary report must also be prepared by January 31 and a final report must be submitted for both types of testing by March 31, 2023.

The ministerial order states that Via Rail and the experts retained for the tests will have to compression-test at least one repaired stainless steel car, validate the methodology used and determine a course of action for all cars to be repaired by Dec. 31, 2023, which is 13 1/2 months away.

Uncertainty and secrecy worse than danger

Via Rail's guidelines communicated only to its customers have "temporarily" prohibited pets from entering the baggage car since October 12. The baggage car serves as a buffer car when there is one in the train composition. The baggage car is a buffer car when there is one in the train's consist, and as a result, it is not accessible to any passenger or Via Rail employee while the train is in motion. Passengers carrying their medication and usually placing it in a suitcase in the baggage car are asked to keep it with them.

Eric Gagnon would be surprised if the cracks on some of the cars are a real danger to passengers, but he is not sure. He notes that an engineering firm, Hatch, was commissioned by Via Rail to study the issue, and it was this firm that suggested the guidelines in effect since October 12.

"What is troubling is Via Rail's silence on an issue that remains important to the safety of riders until the Hatch report is available," he said.

Observers reporting on his Trackside Treasure blog have reported seeing buffer cars being directed to Ottawa for testing, which will take place at the National Research Council.

Via Rail's public relations department does not indicate why the issue of cracks in the stainless steel cars has not been [made public].

In writing, the carrier states that "the deployment of this safety plan is already underway. Beforehand, VIA Rail shared this plan and agreed on its direction with the Canadian rail safety regulator, with whom VIA Rail has communicated on a regular basis, as reflected in the Transport Canada order . The company has also proactively shared this plan with its health and safety policy committees and union leaders," the carrier added by email.

Finally, Via Rail says it has "also established a joint technical working group comprised of current and former VIA Rail employees, union representatives and Hatch representatives. This group will assist the company in analyzing and implementing the engineering firm's recommendations, including overseeing the measurements, interpreting the results of the comprehensive inspection process, and participating in the development of a potential repair program." Le Soleil has learned that some of the stainless steel cars are already repaired.

What Via Rail is refusing to answer

When it comes to the use of buffer cars, Via Rail refuses to answer simple, fairly basic questions that are in the public interest, says Eric Gagnon. [VIA] more often than not operates on the basis of answering questions in writing, which leaves some latitude in terms of whether or not they are willing to answer. In fact, Via Rail has responded to only one of the 11 questions sent in an email by Le Soleil.

It is therefore not possible to know when this problem was detected, how many cars are characterized by this problem and, consequently, what is the proportion of 180 or 185 stainless steel cars with cracks.

Via Rail does not further answer questions as to the cause of the problem, and whether it is known. It is also not possible to know how many cars have been repaired so far and to have an idea of the time frame needed to fix it.

Le Soleil has asked Via Rail without further success to clarify whether any cars have been permanently removed from service in connection with the cracks.

Le Soleil consulted the Trackside Treasure blog in which it is mentioned, with a photo, that the CAD workshops in Montreal were chosen to repair some of the damaged cars but Via Rail does not specify if other workshops were selected to do this work, when asked about it.

[VIA] also would not say how long it plans to keep the venerable cars in daily service. With the busy holiday season approaching, Via Rail is also refusing to say whether all these empty buffer cars will create a shortage of rolling stock.

Jacques Vandersleyen, a lecturer in project management at the Université du Québec à Rimouski and a seasoned observer of the rail transportation scene, deplores Via Rail's continued silence in this matter and does not believe that the use of buffer cars will profoundly change the outcome of a potential collision.

"In the case of a head-on collision, it will be fine, but in the case of a side impact, the buffer car will be useless. Overall, I don't understand why Via Rail has reached such a critical point. We have outdated, obsolete rolling stock that no longer meets standards. We are witnessing a total neglect in the planning and renewal of the Via Rail fleet, even with the recent arrival of new units delivered by Siemens. We saw it more than 20 years ago with the Renaissance cars that were rejected for the Night Star service in England but that we bought here," says Vandersleyen.

He sees it as a common route taken by the Canadian and Quebec departments of transportation, or the Department of National Defence.

"We see it for icebreakers, ferries, cruisers and Canadian Forces aircraft. We always wait not until the last minute, but until it's too late. It's the same thing, the same pattern as for submarines. We bought four piles of scrap, not operational," says Vandersleyen.

Returning to Via Rail, he adds that this piecemeal approach to management also has a profound effect on service in rural areas.

"Via Rail is not interested in returning to the regions, such as the Gaspé. Except for the corridor (Quebec City-Windsor), they are not interested in serving areas where the profit/loss ratio would be less advantageous, even if it is useful," he concludes.

(Translated with free version)

Running extra...

nice article on my Quebec cousin's efforts to right a lost commemoration of his own namesake, and three others, who served in World War II. It's surprising how quickly such sacrifices can be so easily forgotten.

There is no more poignant wreath, placed more lovingly at the National War Memorial, than the one whose purple ribbon reads, "The Mothers of Canada". This Remembrance Day, it will be Silver Cross Mother Candy Greff of Lacombe, AB who will stand and remember her son MCpl Byron Greff, who as a member of 3 PPCLI was Canada's final soldier killed in Afghanistan.

I am looking forward to being able to attend the RCHA Remembrance Day service in Kingston's City Park, for the first time in three years!


Bill said...

A truly informative and to the point story on the buffer car situation. You did an excellent job on this matter for which everyone should be very grateful. I am certain you will keep us all up to date on any developments.

Thank you for your keeping us informed.

Eric said...

Thanks, Bill. Will do as long as I'm the buffer-car bunny down rabbit-hole!

Michael said...

Glad that this issue is coming to light. As a federal government employee, I have watched over the years as the government has moved toward written responses to all media inquiries. It's a way of avoiding tough questions and hiding the truth. It started with Stephen Harper's government and has continued under the Sunny Ways of this Liberal government. It's no longer an issue of politics. It's a matter of telling the truth and facing the people who pay your salary. Unacceptable all around.

Eric said...

Hi Michael,

It's the classic let's-answer-the-question-by-not-answering-the-question, perhaps. Avoids slip-ups and gotchas. Talking points 'r us. The truth may set one free, but sometimes it's a long time coming. Trackside Treasure is providentially a patient place.

Thanks for your comment,