Friday, November 10, 2023

CN Nos 318 and 45 Collide at Ernestown - December 20, 1974

On a clear and cold winter's night just before Christmas in December, 1974 an eastbound CN freight collided with a westbound CN passenger train east of Mile 188 CN Kingston Subdivision, near  Ernestown, Ontario. As a result, tragically, an engineer on CN No 45 was killed as was the engineer on CN No 318, also known as CN Extra 9487 East. The latter, a 'maid-of-all-work' lifting and setting out cars and often handling dimensional loads, left Toronto for Montreal with 9487-9466. Departing Belleville, it had 28 loads, 12 empties, 2,962 tons and 2250 feet in length, travelling only on the north track from Belleville until the point of collision. (Above - Whig-Standard clipping published December 23, 1974 taken from the west end of the derailment with south track in foreground.)


CN Passenger train No 45 left Ottawa for Toronto with 6792-6860 and eight cars, with a ninth coach (CN 5560) not required and removed before departing Ottawa station. The crews for both trains comprised an engineman, front and rear trainmen and conductor, though No 45 had a second engineman with duties exchanged at Brockville.

This image is my best attempt at showing the area of the collision east of Ernestown with eastbound approach signals at Mi 190.0 out of the picture to the west, and westbound approach signals at Mi. 185.5 also out of the picture to the east. The crossovers and related block signals just east of the station and highway overpass, as well as my best estimate at the point of impact, approximately Mi 187.2 and relative length of the two opposing trains on the north track, have been added to the satellite image:
Photos taken from the Highway 133 (now County Road 4) overpass in 2014. Looking west (above) coming out of a left-hand curve into tangent track in front of the unoccupied CN Ernestown station. A back track once ran west to where the equipment sits. Looking east (below) tangent track showing the crossovers. CN No 45 was lined from north (left) to south (right) track with the point of impact site in the distance under the tall poles:
The collision occurred at 2025 on December 20, 1974. What follows is an account of the incident from documents of the time. No confidential testimonial details are divulged. No speculation as to events behind the cause, nor discussion, insinuation or innuendo will be introduced.


The cause of the collision and derailment was found to be a violation of UCOR Rule 292 (stop signal) by No 318 at signal 1876N. First notice of the derailment from afar was by the CN Belleville Desk 'A' Train Dispatcher, controlling Mi 174.9 at Queens to Mi 287.0 at Clarke, noting the two trains converge and a dropped circuit on the north track. No 45 had been lined through the crossovers from north to south track. There was track occupancy showing on north track east of the eastward control signal at Ernestown, then seconds later another occupancy on the south track east of the Ernestown crossover. The dispatcher communication system crackled as a CTC failure was evident and broken communication wires were grounded in the snow.

A Canadian Transport Commission report diagram of the collision:


All train crew on both trains, as well as 169 passengers of approximately 239 on board CN No 45, reported injuries of various severity. No radio communications were received from the site. Toronto auxiliary Extra 5539 East was ordered at 2035, departed Toronto at 2150, arriving Ernestown 0300 on December 21. Toronto hi-rail mobile crane RC60471 was ordered at 2130, arriving Ernestown at 0250 December 21. Montreal auxiliary Extra 5550 West was ordered at 2040, departed Montreal at 2230, arriving Ernestown 0640 December 21. Both auxiliaries had switched their trains, just before approaching the site, to have crane at head-end approaching the wreck. The Montreal auxiliary switched its train at the east end of the service track at Ernestown.

Heading east toward the site, likely the Toronto auxiliary, crane-first (photo taken by the late Reg Aitken). This photo has been in my collection for years and I just now connected it with events of that December, 1974. The car at left is likely IC 971527, a load of ties shifted by the impact that the extra train, called out of Belleville to remove the tail-end cars of 318, left at the site. This is a north business track no longer in place. Note the snowmobiler at right:
A relief train of RDC's from No 648's train operated from Belleville to scene thence Toronto evacuating passengers.
Passengers were taken by snowmobile relay parallel to the tracks, 2,900 feet west to the Highway 133 overpass vicinity. I've heard from at least two snowmobilers who simply responded on their own, having heard of the collision! I've also heard from one passenger who had his cross-country skis on board and skied his way to 133. Four injured were taken to hospital in Napanee, 21 to Kingston HDH, 16 to Kingston KGH, and two to Belleville. After rescue operations were complete by 2245, trains were sent from Belleville and Kingston to remove uninvolved rear portions of both trains.

Both units on No 45 (6792 and 6860) derailed, with 6792 completely derailed, badly damaged, partially reversed and leaning at 40 degrees on the north track. CN 6860 was upright, 45 degrees to the track and leaning at 20 degrees on the north track. It was still coupled to derailed baggage car 9635 derailed at its west end and fouling the south track. Derailed at its east end, Club Laurier was forced upright and had telescoped five feet into the first coach, underailed 5589 in which the train's conductor and front trainman had been seated at a table. 
CN 6860 head-end and 9635 (above) and looking east (below) 9635 and Club Laurier (CN photos, likely taken December 21, 1974).
The tail-end of No 45 was 745 feet east of the estimated collision point. Coaches 5442, 5621, 2502, 5449 and 5447 were removed to Kingston by 0210 December 21, arriving Montreal on a freight train on December 22. 

An engineman's body, though not the engineman operating the train, was not recovered until 1300 the next day. An unfortunate female passenger, who other passengers remember leaving her seat but not returning, was found dead in the washroom of coach 5589. One of approximately 75 passengers boarding at Kingston, she was travelling with her husband and infant as far as Belleville. The first three cars were rerailed: 5589 at 1200, Club Laurier at 1300, and 9635 at 1545. All three were taken to Kingston by 1825 on December 21, arriving in Montreal on a freight train January 4.

No 318's lead unit 9487 derailed onto its side across the south track and service track at 45 degrees to the north track. The top of its engine housing was separated. The second unit 9466 and following gondola car CBQ 197702 were damaged but not derailed, the latter with one truck up off the rails. The next three cars derailed to north at an angle: another gondola CBQ 197532, boxcar CN 432000 its strewn cans and drums of motor oil from Sarnia billed to Kingston, and empty insulated car CN 291140 for Brockville. The CBQ gondolas were empty and billed to Kingston. 
Montreal auxiliary crane working from the east (above - with linemen beginning to rebuild poles and wires above the derailment - photo kindly shared by John Mayell). 

The traffic pattern at the time of the derailment, before and after (below). Especially interesting are trains diverted from Montreal to Belleville via Ottawa-Smiths Falls-Napanee: 


Interestingly, of the five train orders given to No 45 at Brockville, two appeared to pertain to the construction of the curve reduction between Division and Montreal Streets in Kingston. One mentioned a speed restriction of 20 mph on eastward track between 173.9 and 172.8, another a speed restriction of 30 mph on westward track between 173.2 and 174.0, and a third advising of  a newly-installed switch at Mi 173.4.

Phil Jago kindly shared this photo (below) of CN No 45 Eng 6792 at Ottawa station on what was likely its penultimate trip. Phil was returning to St Catharines from Ottawa via Toronto before Christmas. Upon his return, he recalls his eastbound train gingerly passing through the derailment site in darkness.
CN No 45 was operating at 80 mph past the intermediate signal 1855N (displaying yellow over green = Approach Limited) with an expected crossover to the south track at Ernestown. CN No 44 had passed on the south track, and 318 was eastbound to Ernestown on the north track. No 45 made a reduction in speed to 65 mph prior to the crossover where it would be normally slowing to 45 mph for the interlocking signal 1875N (displaying red over green over red = Limited Clear) putting it on the south track for its upcoming station stop at Belleville. This was a usual procedure due to evening passenger train conflictions at Kingston, and allowed freight trains to depart Belleville and run as far east as Ernestown on the north track even if working Kingston on the south service track.  

A scanner transmission heard just seconds before impact warned, "55 you had better soak 'er!" Actually CN No 55 was operating miles behind 45, back around Brockville. The headlight of an eastbound train (318) was visible on the north track ahead as the speeding passenger train rounded a 0-degree 38-minute curve to the left. One engineer had left the cab already, and the second left the cab seconds later, having heard the warning to 55 spoken close-by and clearly, quickly making his decision to exit the cab and jump from the side ladder, seconds after making an emergency brake application and shutting off the throttle. The estimated train speed at time of impact was down to 30 mph.

After the impact, no cab radios were operable, communication wires (10 open signal wires) on two now-broken poles crossed sides south-to-north, ironically directly over the collision site were enmeshed in the equipment below. (The locomotives collided head-on and the passenger units rode up and over contacting the overhead lines.)

CN No 318 departed Toronto MacMillan Yard at 0510 with 38 loads, 35 empties, and a tonnage of 4,604. Set-outs en route included 18-7 at Oshawa, 2-1 at Cobourg prior to arrival in Belleville at 1040. Departing Belleville at 2000 after being switched and the two units brought to the head-end from the Belleville shop tracks where fuelling had taken place, the train included nine dimensional loads. 

After an uneventful trip east from Belleville, 318 passed intermediate signal 1900N (displaying yellow over red = Approach) without any notable speed reduction. Interlocking signal 1876N was reported as a red Stop signal. Fearing an impending collision, the head-end trainman went through the nose door to the steps and jumped at an unknown speed into deep snow to the north. With no noted slowdown and aware of their location, both caboose crew decided to "Soak it!", knowing from the train's location that it could not stop in time for the home signal. Not only was there no speedometer anywhere in the caboose, the air pressure gauge was not lit and could only be seen by turning on interior lights. The only way the crew could see approaching signals was due to a low-profile car being marshalled directly ahead. Reaching to pull the rope-type emergency cord after ascertaining their location between the approach and control signal to the east, the train came to a gradual stop and neither reported roughness in the train doing so.

Unaware of a collision, walking forward from caboose 79503 which had stopped 40 feet west of signal 1876N, debris was noticed and a private residence telephone in Ernestown hamlet had to be used to contact the dispatcher to initiate emergency response. The conductor also made this request to an Ontario Provincial Police constable whose car was stopped near the overpass.

Power crossover switch 5B from the north track to the south track, lined for No 318, had clearly been run through, with damage to switch points and rods (throw, rod and point detector rods). The signal system was found to have been operating normally at time of collision, inspected and returned to service by 2300 hours on December 22.

CN No 318 had been operating between 62 and 69 mph (averaged) east of Belleville and 60 mph at the point of collision, found to be 2,245 feet east of the interlocking signal 1876N. Sight lines for the four signals prominent in the collision:
  • Intermediate signal 1900N (eastward north track) = 4,070 feet
  • Interlocking signal 1876N (eastward north track) = 2,990 feet
  • Intermediate signal 1855N (westward north track) = 4,650 feet
  • Interlocking signal 1875N (westward north track) = 5,490 feet

Two other derailments have since occurred at this location:
  • April 5, 1999 - CN No 318 derailed cars onto the mainline, colliding with CN No 321.
  • September 5, 2019 - CN No 519 pushed tank cars foul of the south track, subsequently struck by VIA No 48, damaging VIA 906 and Business Class car 3453

One blessing in all this: that the collision did not happen while No 45 was in the crossovers. I can only imagine the injuries and loss of life if No 318 had plowed into the side of 45's passenger cars. The head-on collision east of the crossovers still resulted in a plethora of injuries and the loss of three lives.

In happier times: CN 6792 leads a westbound CN passenger train past the closed station at Collins Bay about eight miles to the east (John Wallington photo, autumn 1973.
An after-church photo at Collins Bay station (L.C. Gagnon photo) earlier that autumn. The station's oil tank is still in place and windows not yet boarded-up:
My thanks to Phil Jago, John Mayell and John Wallington for their assistance with this post, which has been reviewed in draft form by two former CN engineers familiar with the area and the incident. In an upcoming postscript, I'll be including photos and a timeline of the cleanup and aftermath of the derailment, the state of the wrecked equipment and a brief epilogue.

Running extra...

If you can, attend a Remembrance Day service tomorrow. If you can't, here's an interesting read prepared and just published by my brother Dave on his Rolly Martin Country blog detailing our maternal grandfather's experiences over 100 years ago including some arresting archival artifacts!

Business Train Lite. CN 3309, wearing the nine-degree tilted-wafer logo, sped three cars of CN's executive train fleet  - Fraser Spirit, American Spirit and ex-IC theatre car Sandford Fleming - east at Collins Bay thence Montreal Taschereau Yard doing 60 mph on the 138th anniversary of the driving of the CPR's Last Spike, November 7. Randy Zarowny notes, "..Fraser Spirit was rebuilt as a power car with two Cummins gensets, the engines basically the same as in the Budd cars. BC Rail mechanical staff in North Vancouver did the work. The car was used to power BC Rail's Northwind tour train that ran successfully before all of the BCR passenger service was cancelled. The two Cummins gensets came out of a trailer that was used in the construction of the Tumbler Ridge rail line." Thanks, Randy!


Ross B. said...

I came down from Odessa on my almost new Johnson Rampage snowmobile and brought one of the passengers over to County Road 6 following this collision. I was 34 at the time. Ross Babcock

Eric said...

That's interesting, Ross. I can remember snowmobiles going up and down our street in Amherstview, across the schoolyard and over the train tracks into the fields. Snowmobile tracks were everywhere back them. Without you and others, that rescue and recovery operation would have been completely different. Thank you!