On the morning of February 8, 1986, the world woke up to the news of a collision between Via Rail’s Super Continental passenger train and a Canadian National Railway freight train. The crash resulted in 23 people dead, injuring 95 others. It was (still is) the deadliest rail accident in Alberta and among the worst in Canadian railway transport history. 38 years later, we look at how the Canadian railway system operated then, the possible causes of the crash, and the aftermath. We will also look at other similar train crashes in history.

How the Canadian Rail System Operated

Unlike road transport, where there can be dual passages for vehicles to pass, rail transport is usually a one-way traffic. As such, train drivers rely on train dispatchers (equivalent to air traffic controllers) for directions to avoid collisions and crashes.

While most rails are single tracks, there are specific passing lanes (siding) with several rail tracks where trains can smoothly pass each other. The passing lanes also have lights (equivalent to traffic lights) that signal train drivers to remain on course or divert to the siding. The lights are controlled by the train dispatchers.

Now, assuming a train reaches a siding and there is no other oncoming train, the dispatcher will signal the driver to continue in their lane by lighting all three green lights. This can also happen when there is an oncoming train, but the driver has the right of way.

If a train driver has to give way at the passing lanes, the lights will turn to three steady red lights. The driver should then divert to the other lane and start reducing the train speed in preparation for a halt to allow the oncoming train to pass.

How the Hinton Train Collision Happened

On February 8, 1986, the freight train left Edson, Canada, at 6:40 am. It stopped outside Medicine Lodge to pave the way for the eastbound train to pass before resuming its journey at 8:02 am. It reached Hargwen (a spot with a double track) at about 8:20 am. Here, the dispatcher directed the train to take the north track.

Around the same time, the Super Continental passenger train had halted at Hinton, where it departed five minutes past the time it was supposed to. As such, the dispatcher at Dalehurst gave it the right of way at the passing lanes to avoid further delays.

While approaching the double track, the dispatcher directed the freight train to the south track to give way for the oncoming Super Continental train. At this point, the driver of the freight train should have been reducing the speed from 95 kilometers per hour (59 mph) that it was traveling to about 48 km/h (30 mph) to give enough time for the passenger train to pass.

Unfortunately, even after diverting to the south track, the freight train continued to move at a steady speed. Within no time, it had completed the diversion and returned to the single track on which the passenger train was. 18 seconds after the lead locomotive of the freight train entered the single-track section, it collided head-on with the oncoming passenger train.

How Bad Was the Hinton Train Collision?

When the collision happened, both lead locomotives of the trains were destroyed, killing their crews on the spot. Fire erupted (probably from the diesel fuel), engulfing the baggage car and the day coach of the passenger train; 18 passengers died.

Also, because of the high speeds that the trains were traveling at when they collided, the cars on the freight train piled on each other, resulting in a huge amount of debris. 95 people were injured from the impact.

What Caused the Hinton Train Collision?

After investigations, it was discovered that the crew in the freight train had had little to no sleep before embarking on the journey. So, the brakeman and the engineer failed to reduce the train’s speed as it diverted to the south track to allow the passenger train to pass because they were dead asleep/incapacitated.

It was also ascertained that the conductor at the freight train’s caboose (he survived) was asleep at the time of the crash. This was despite his insistence that he had tried to contact the brakeman and the engineer when the train failed to slow down after reaching the passing lanes. If anything, the conductor at the caboose had all the equipment and expertise needed to slow the train down when he noticed that he couldn’t reach the crew in front and the locomotive wasn’t slowing down.

PS: Most trains have a “pedal” that ensures drivers don’t sleep while operating the locomotive. The pedal is designed so the driver’s leg steadily lies on it during the journey. When there is no pressure on the pedal, the train assumes that whoever is supposed to be in control isn’t, so it automatically stops.

Unfortunately, the train drivers had found a way around this: they usually placed a heavy object on the pedal to mimic their foot. This is precisely what the freight train crew did that day before falling asleep.

Similar Accidents to the Hinton Train Collision

There have been crashes involving trains before and after the Hinton train accident. For instance, in 1987, a freight train that also disregarded signals was rear-ended by an Amtrak passenger train traveling at full speed. In this case, however, the crew of the freight had smoked marijuana, limiting their functionality.

In 2008, a Metrolink commuter train crew in Chatsworth disregarded signals, leading to a head-on collision with a Union Pacific freight train. Interestingly, the engineer at fault was supposedly distracted by text messages.

Last Update: April 2, 2024