Five lives lost: Workers at CN raise safety alarm after string of rail deaths
Yoan Morneau, right, with his girlfriend, Catherine Magny
MONTREAL -- Yoan Morneau rarely talked at home about the details of his job. His girlfriend only knew two things: he liked it, but it also made him increasingly nervous.
Since he was about 25, Morneau had worked at a Montreal railyard, constantly crossing train tracks and climbing up and down rail cars, sometimes driving the cars across town.
Why he liked it was obvious. “He always told me he felt like he was going on a mission every day,” said a coworker. “Whether the weather is bad or not, he was always keeping his big smile.”
Everyone at work loved Morneau, said his coworker. He was straightforward and hardworking but had “a lot of humanity,” a lot of curiosity, he said. Morneau was born and raised in Montreal, but his coworkers came from all over, and he often tried to learn about their different cultures.
“He’s the kind of guy, even if he doesn’t have the free time to talk with you, he’s going to take the two minutes he doesn’t have to support you, to listen to you,” said the man, who still works at Canadian National Rail and didn’t want to be identified for risk of job repercussions.
Morneau died in a workplace accident this January. His coworkers said they wanted to talk to media to make sure he’d “never be forgotten,” and to try, after five similar deaths at their company in two-and-a-half years, to save others from fatal accidents.
Could Morneau’s life have been saved? CN employees say yes, but not with a quick new safety rule—only with a deep reckoning of what’s happened at their company in the last few years.
Why Morneau was increasingly nervous was also hard to explain. The 32-year-old spent at least four hours a day at the yard at Pointe-St-Charles, “building trains.” After seven years on the job, the fact that he knew it was dangerous was a good sign—he “wasn’t a cowboy,” his coworker said.
But at home, Morneau told his girlfriend, 31-year-old Catherine Magny, about all the close calls he was seeing, “of things that could have caused accidents,” she said. He told her he wanted a new position.
In December, he moved in with Magny in a place near Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. A friend recalled him calling and saying “how happy he was, and he wanted me to meet his girlfriend.”
Six months after he died, on Jan. 6, Magny said she still doesn’t know exactly what happened since she couldn’t bear to hear the details. Morneau’s coworker said the same: he’d asked those who were present to tell him only whether his friend had been in much pain.
They told him that when climbing down from a car’s ladder, just after a bout of freezing rain, Morneau had slipped and fallen on the tracks, where a very slow-moving train had severed one of his legs at the thigh. Bleeding heavily, he passed out quickly, they said.
AN ALARMING TREND
Canada tends to see only a small handful of deaths among railroad workers each year. A major accident, like the 2019 derailing in B.C. that killed three workers at once, can make the annual statistics spike. But overall, for the past decade, it’s been fairly steady at about two per year.
To workers at CN, however, Canada’s biggest rail company and Morneau’s employer, there’s an alarming trend within those numbers.
In the last two-and-a-half years, since 2018, five conductors like Morneau have died at CN-owned railyards in Canada. A sixth died a little earlier, in 2017.
Most were early in their careers, with one still in training. All were doing what the industry calls “switching activities” in railyards—generally considered the most dangerous rail job—but beyond that, in another similarity, most were riding on moving equipment at the time.
With a sample size so small, it’s still impossible to point to an underlying cause with precision.
But some CN employees, past and present, point out that the company’s restructuring over the last few years did away with many familiar bulwarks meant to guard against errors, including dismantling a longstanding safety team, while also hiring a huge new cohort of young, inexperienced employees.
Now, there are new hires “being put on-train with not much experience,” said another employee who also wanted to remain anonymous.
“Conductor, it’s one of those jobs where you make a mistake, it can be fatal pretty quickly.”
A third employee, who also asked not to be named, said that “now, with these new guys, it’s like, there’s just so many newbies out there, you have nobody to look out for them.”
On Dec. 4, 2018, 33-year-old Pierre-Luc Levesque, a father of two who was still in training, was fatally struck by a rail car reversing in an Edmundston, N.B., yard.
On Aug.15, 2019, 27-year-old Imraan Qamar was killed in a Vaughan, Ont., yard when he was trapped under a derailed car.
On June 1, 2020, 31-year-old Jasvinder Riar, a newlywed and new father, died in a Surrey, B.C., yard.
Two weeks later, in Port Edward, B.C., Daniel Paulusse died similarly. He was 37 but new to CN, just two years into his career.
Daniel Paulusse died in a workplace incident at a CN Railway lot on June 15, 2020. (image: GoFundMe)
Morneau died less than six months after Paulusse.
In a statement to CTV, CN didn’t respond specifically to a question about the string of deaths, but it described several safety improvements it’s made in the past few years.
Did Morneau break a safety rule, and could his death have been prevented? Those are two very different questions, CN employees say.
Technically, he did break a rule, according to witnesses’ accounts of how he died. Rail workers aren’t supposed to climb down from a rail car’s ladder when any part of the train they’re building is in motion, even if it’s very slow.
Morneau began to climb down while the train was still coming to a stop, likely going less than 10 miles per hour, his coworker said.
But “there’s always a difference between training and what really happens on the field,” he said. Nobody waits for all the cars to stop, he said, and people are rarely, if ever, reprimanded for not waiting.
In fact, “if they really had to respect that rule, they’re not going to be meeting their corporate goals,” he said.
“That’s the way it’s done, and people, they just go down the ladder a little bit before it’s stopped.”
In recent years, CN has identified this as a “life critical rule,” meaning one that could put a life in danger if broken. But two other long-time CN workers agreed that the rule is often broken.
In the employees’ views, working so slowly flies not only against company interests, but human nature. But CN used to have a system meant to guard against that, one ex-employee pointed out: it had about 40 workers whose jobs were purely to remind people not to cut corners.
Until 2018, CN’s large safety staff included a vice president, a general manager, and a superintendent. They oversaw at least two dozen “risk managers” of different levels spread throughout Canada. They, in turn, kept regular railyard supervisors accountable on safety matters, while also helping shoulder some of their burden.
Supervisors are required to do daily safety spot checks on their employees, watching them work when they don’t know they’re being watched.
These spot checks catch some downright alarming moments, said one ex-supervisor.
“One guy… was listening to his AirPods. Listening to music while he was switching rail cars on the ground,” which is incredibly dangerous, he said.
“The most deceiving part about rail cars and trains—as big and as loud as it is, you don't hear them coming. It’s crazy.”
Other times there was faulty communication, with workers slipping in between rail cars without alerting others first, the man said. “If the locomotive engineer decides to move, well, he’s going to cut you in half, literally.”
Another time, near a Quebec railroad crossing, when it was “pouring rain... this young kid,” a new employee, “decided he had to be on the other side of the tracks” and ran across the slippery wooden ties with about five feet to spare, while the train was moving.
Until a few years ago, the results of spot checks would be sent to safety specialists, who would enter them into a central database that would, in turn, reveal the weakest workplaces in the country. The safety staff would zero in on three or four yards a year, with staff flying in for a surprise weeklong audit.
The entire system was designed to spot bad habits developing in young workers after they’d finished training.
A GROWING WORKLOAD
But in 2018, the company got a new CEO, Jean-Jacques Ruest, and the roster of upper-level managers changed. Soon after, all but one or two of the safety jobs were abolished, said the ex-supervisor.
The checks and balances themselves didn’t all change—spot checks and audits continued to happen—but the work was portioned out to railyard supervisors.
On top of their regular duties managing the work of the yard, they would also be asked to fly into other yards across the country for safety audits, and they were asked to keep doing spot checks, but without the risk managers overseeing the results, an ex-supervisor explained.
“The quota was there,” he said. But “how good the spot checks were… that’s up for debate, right? It’s tough to go in and validate if they’re being done.”
When asked if CN had abolished dozens of safety jobs, the company didn’t respond directly, but said that “leaders” in safety have even more contact with employees now than before, though it did not explain who the “leaders” are.
“Over the past two years we have made important managerial adjustments to deeply instill a safety culture throughout the organization, from top to bottom, and to ensure the appropriate accountability for safety leadership, culture, and results,” the company said in a statement to CTV.
“Our leaders in the field interact with our employees more than in the past.”
The current measures include job safety briefings given to employees before any assignment, weekly spot checks, and regular discussions around “potential exposures associated with a task,” the statement said.
One long-time employee also said the company has recently developed a seemingly effective system to zero in on the biggest safety risks with its so-called “life critical rules”—even though the deaths continue to happen.
The company explained that workers are continually reminded to follow these particular rules “to the letter” and to “encourage their peers to do the same.”
A STREAM OF NEWBIES
But the workers who spoke to CTV said there was an even bigger shift in the past five years or so. As baby boomers retired en masse, the company went on a hiring spree for new, young workers. But there was a generation gap—CN didn’t have a bulk of mid-career workers in their 40s and 50s who had already learned the ropes.
“In training, sometimes, you’d have someone who'd been on the job for let’s say five years, and he’s going to train someone,” another man said.
It’s better to learn from “someone having 35 years on the field.”
There was a third, more gradual change at CN, too, they all said: the workforce shrank overall.
One big adjustment came with sudden furloughs in 2020, as the pandemic hit and business dropped. In a single year, from spring 2019 to spring 2020, the company reported cutting its workforce by 5,800 employees or 21 per cent of the staff.
Some of those workers were brought back at a later stage in the pandemic, but thousands of layoffs over a longer timespan have led to a permanently smaller staff, workers said.
“There used to be more than 30,000 employees and now it’s less than 20,000,” Morneau’s coworker said bluntly.
He said that when he sees the five recent deaths, more than anything, he thinks of “the pressure” they all face.
On the job, in Montreal, workers who mess up in some way often hear exactly how much their mistake affects the bottom line—they might be told that “this mistake cost the company, for example, $20K,” he said.
CN didn’t respond to a question about exactly how much its workforce has shrunk in recent years, or how it redistributes the workload among the remaining staff.
‘WHAT WERE HIS LAST THOUGHTS?’
The federal government has made clear in the last year that it sees a growing problem in railyard safety. Only two deaths from 2016 and 2017, both in Saskatchewan—one of a 26-year-old CN worker, and the other a Canadian Pacific worker—have had time to lead to full reports followed by a ministerial order. (Canadian Pacific has seen fewer railyard deaths in recent years than CN, and is not the subject of this article.)
In particular, a report last year by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) noted that “unplanned and uncontrolled” movement of rail cars or equipment has been on a worrying “upward trend” between 2010 and 2019, with most of the incidents ending in collisions or derailments, but sometimes in death.
The two Saskatchewan deaths involved “relatively inexperienced operators,” the board noted.
It’s too early to say what, if anything, the government might do after studying the five deaths since 2018.
Morneau’s death and three others are still under investigation by the TSB. CN put out a video memorial after his death, but for some others, including Jasvinder Riar, the new father who died in Surrey, B.C., there wasn’t that kind of response, said Riar’s widow.
“One year later and we still don’t even know what happened,” Sabrina Riar told CTV. “What went wrong.., what were his last thoughts?”
Riar’s family is “still waiting for CN Rail to release a statement,” she said.
Jasvinder Riar, 31, was killed in a workplace accident in Surrey, B.C. on June 1, 2020. (image: GoFundMe)
One other report has been made public: the TSB’s report on Levesque, the trainee who died in New Brunswick in December 2018.
The board found that Levesque had been standing on the footboard of a locomotive when two other rail cars began to roll, “uncontrolled,” into the locomotive, crushing him.
The runaway cars had been left with only the emergency brakes on instead of hand brakes, during a stretch of weather when ice made the brakes less effective.
Transport Canada’s new ministerial order, dated last September, requires Canadian rail companies to make their switching operations and brake rules safer.
The department told CTV that it has made other changes as well, including updating the duty-rest rules in November 2020 in the hopes of reducing accidents caused by fatigue.
When it comes to CN’s safety-job cuts, the government said it oversees Canadian railways’ overall safety management, but that doesn’t mean setting out staffing levels or “the processes for assigning work to employees.”
Transport Canada said it also has its own “robust” system of audits that includes 35,000 inspections per year. Over half of the government’s inspections and audits happen at CN properties, it said.
But CN supervisors said the government inspections aren’t effective. An inspector can officially count hundreds of inspections within a single-day visit, one CN ex-staff-member said, meaning they’re not visiting the railyards as often as it sounds like—and they never come at night or on off-hours, high-pressure times.
CN workers’ union, the Teamsters, didn’t respond to CTV’s request for comment on the five conductors’ deaths, simply saying it is participating in the investigation into Morneau’s death.
However, after the New Brunswick report, the union said the case was “symptomatic of the shortfalls in Canada’s rail sector safety culture” in a statement at the time.
“The focus on profits and efficiency over safety must change,” it said.
“Every accident is preventable but after 13 fatalities in three years [note from CTV: this number is in total, across all Canadian rail companies], it appears evident to our union that the rail carriers and regulators lack the commitment to take the necessary actions to prevent these tragedies.”
'YOU CANNOT BE THERE AT 80 PER CENT'
Long-time railroaders say they try to keep a particular eye on workers with about five years’ experience, since they’re in a particular danger zone.
“The thing with the new guys is… they think they can go so fast and be so efficient, that they just become complacent,” said one older worker. “They don’t realize the gravity of their error until it actually happens.”
Morneau’s death left all his coworkers shaken. “Still today, I think it affects a lot of people,” said his friend.
Now, when he sees people working long shifts—in the yard at 11 p.m. when he leaves, and somehow there again at 6 a.m., when he shows up—a red flag goes up in his mind.
“To be honest, I feel like… you cannot be there at 80 per cent doing this kind of job,” he said. “It’s pretty dangerous. You can’t be at 85 per cent: you have to be at 100 per cent.”
Morneau also left behind his parents and many devastated aunts, uncles and cousins across Quebec. One aunt recalled how he loved sampling Montreal’s restaurants and used to take her to his favourite spots when she visited.
“Yoan was a sweet, warm, smiling young man, always in a good mood, endearing, simple, generous, intelligent and genuine,” said the aunt, Brigitte Morneau. “He still had his whole life ahead of him.”
Like Yoan’s girlfriend, his family knew he was becoming very concerned his job was too risky, she said.
“He was very aware of the risks of his job,” she said. “He often spoke about it within the family, and about his worries and the close calls.”
Still, she said, she didn’t understand what was at stake.
“For my part, I had no idea how risky his job was, to the point of losing his life,” she said. “I did not believe that in 2021, it was still possible there this kind of work still existed here in Quebec.”