The Demise of the VIA FPA-4s

VIA  FPA-4 6786 is westbound at Thamesville, Ontario in July 1985.  Photo by Mike Shufelt.

The VIA 6700 series “Alcos”, built by MLW in 1958 and 1959, were acquired from Canadian National.  By 1989, VIA had started to retire these handsome units and the Canadian Trackside Guide for that year shows a total of 15 remaining of the original 32.  Then, at the end of March 1989, the entire fleet was banned from running in the lead position.  This is the story of that event.

On February 8, 1986 there was a serious head on collision between a freight train and a VIA passenger train near Hinton, Alberta, which claimed 23 lives.  There were a number of items that contributed to the accident, one of the main ones being the lack of a Reset Safety Device (RSD) on the locomotives which were merely equipped with “Deadman” Foot Pedals.  The RSD is a far superior piece of equipment that is not easily cut out by the simple expedient of putting a brick or a lunch pail on the Deadman foot pedal.  The Foisy Report into the Hinton accident was published in December 1986 and the then Canadian Transport Commission issued an order requiring all locomotives operating in the lead position to be equipped with an RSD.  Following complaints at the expense of doing this, VIA was given an extension until March 31, 1989 to comply.  

In the meantime, I had been given the task of writing the Railway Safety Act which became law on January 1, 1989.  At that time, railway safety regulation in Canada passed from the National Transportation Agency (formerly the Canadian Transport Commission) to Transport Canada and I became responsible for the program.  The Agency staff were also transferred to Transport Canada to ensure continuity. 

With a new, untested piece of legislation in place, and a new Director General as well, the railways (and unions) started probing and testing to see where they stood stake out their positions: the RSD was a good place to start.  The railways, in general, had done a good job in conversion to RSD - the one exception was VIA.  The passenger railway had planned to retire its FPA-4’s before the end of March 1989 with the introduction of the final batch of F40 PH-2, 6400 series locomotives.  However, there had been delays in delivery and so they applied, at the last minute, for an extension of the deadline.  It was quite a performance, suggesting that unless we agreed to an extension there would be wholesale cancellation of passenger services for an indefinite period.  I pointed out that VIA had known about the deadline for a long time and could easily have fitted RSDs to the 6700s. 

I went to Ottawa station with my Director of Equipment and the Chief of Motive Power.  We found a 6700 and took a look inside.  The engine room was awash in oil and the air in the cab was thick with fumes.  It was not a pleasant workplace.  Worse, when we tested the Deadman, it didn’t work at all and the maintenance staff had to scramble to make repairs to get the train out on time.

VIA FPA-4 6760 leads "The Canadian" into Ottawa station on Jamuary 6, 1986. 
In 1988, 6760 was sold to the Napa Valley Railroad Company in Napa, California, and remains in service as #70 hauling wine trains.  Photo courtesy F. David Shaw.

In looking at safety matters there are two factors to be considered – risk and consequence.  In this case, the risk of an accident from having a Deadman pedal instead of the RSD was quite low.  However, the consequence could be disastrous, as the Hinton accident had shown.  It might not have been so bad if this were in relation to a low speed freight operation but these units were running at high speed and carrying passengers.  The visit to Ottawa station merely confirmed our thinking that units with foot pedals should not be allowed in the lead position, especially on passenger trains.

And so the VIA 6700’s were banned from being in the lead position on any train in Canada as of March 31, 1989.  The resultant service disruptions were not as severe as VIA had predicted.  A number of locomotives were hired from the freight railways and, in some cases timing suffered because these were only geared for freight train speeds. 

Many of us were sorry to see them go because they always made a good photogenic sight at the head end of a passenger train.  However, safety must be paramount and I believe we made the right decision.  In the end, it only delayed the demise of these popular locomotives by a few months when the final batch of the 6400's came on stream.

VIA 6782 takes VIA train 36 to Montreal out of Ottawa, past the dead track in Ottawa on July 1, 1982.

VIA 6783 heads up VIA train 31 from Montreal to Ottawa at Hawthorne on September 20, 1981.

At Brockville on October 24, 1981, VIA 6758 (left) heads a train to Montreal while VIA 6764 (right) is ready to depart with the train to Ottawa

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, October 2005.

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