When locomotive engineer Wesley MacDonald stayed with his runaway train March 9, he thought he was doing the right thing. Now in the wake of a six-month suspension handed down to him by CN, he's not so sure.
``If I thought (they were going to give me) six months, I would have been off, and let `er go to hell,'' a bitter Mr. MacDonald said in an interview with the Northern Light.
``A six month suspension is some kind of hard medicine to take...I only stayed (with the train) because there were three level crossings to go over. I kept blowing the whistle...I could have jumped off when we were only going 11 miles an hour.''
The train engineered by Mr. MacDonald, comprised of two locomotives and 30 cars carrying lead-zinc concentrate, derailed six kilometres south of Bathurst last month, after the brakes apparently let go when Mr. MacDonald was trying to hook up 23 cars at Brunswick Mines.
Mr. MacDonald was the sole rider on the train and miraculously escaped unscathed. Although the wreck is still under investigation by both CN and the Railway Transport Committee, notices of suspension were given to Mr. MacDonald and three others March 28.
Suspended with Mr. MacDonald were two other local men, conductor Laurie Sturgeon and brakeman Bob Court. Each received four month suspensions as did brakeman Bruce Scott, a native of Newcastle.
Mr. MacDonald, 59, said the suspension is unjust. He explained he expected to lose demerits, because ``I should have used a little more judgement.''
The engines he was using were a 9400 and a 9500 which have compensation brake shoes. If he had used MR18's, which have cast iron brake shoes, he would have had additional braking power to use that fateful morning, which saw blowing and drifting snow.
In addition, Mr. MacDonald said he should have had air hoses running from the engines to the cars, so each of the cars would have had braking capacity, rather than just the engines.
However, he said engine brakes were traditionally all that was used for shunting back and forth to pick up cars, and CN management personnel had seen this done ``day in and day out, time and time again.''
``Nothing was ever said before, now it's a big deal,'' Mr. MacDonald said, noting a bulletin was posted March 9 after the accident saying air hoses were to be used at all times.
CN is not commenting on the suspensions, and an official in Moncton would not even confirm suspensions had been given out. CN public affairs spokesman Steve McIntosh said an issue like disciplinary procedures is considered an internal matter.
Mr. McIntosh did say that in the March 9 derailment , ``operating procedures were not followed, and CN is dealing with the situation to rectify it, to insure it doesn't happen again.''
Mr. MacDonald said the March 9 incident occurred when he was trying to pick up 23 cars from 30 cars on three different tracks. He was hauling the 30 cars into position when the train started to gain momentum. Mr. MacDonald tried to stop the train, but the brakes wouldn't hold.
A harrowing ride of some 20 minutes duration ensued. Mr. MacDonald even managed to crawl up on a car from the engine, to try and apply the hand brake, but with the train traveling at 55 miles per hour, the wind was too strong.
``I couldn't make it,'' recalled Mr. MacDonald.
The engineer, who started with CN in May of 1945, said the suspension will cost him about $30,000. In addition, he is scheduled to retire in November, and since his pension is based on his best-paying five years of service, the suspension will also cut his retirement income.
Mr. MacDonald said in his 42 years of service he has never been subjected to any kind of disciplinary measures before.
He said CN follows a demerit system, where employees are given 60 demerits to start with. If all are lost for infractions, an employee is dismissed.
``I expected to lose 35, or even 45 demerit marks, and that would be that until November. I got a raw deal,'' said Mr. MacDonald, who is taking his case up with his union, the International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, in Moncton.
Mr. MacDonald said there are 673 rules in CN's uniform code, or operating rules, and he was suspended under rule 106, which he described as vague at best.
Rule 106, as quoted by Mr. MacDonald, states ``trains will run under the direction of the conductor. When a train is running without a conductor, the engineer will perform the duties of the conductor.
``Under conditions not provided for by the rules, the engineer must take every precaution for protection. This does not relieve other employees of their responsibilities.
``That pretty well covers the whole book...They couldn't get us on anything else,'' said a dejected Mr. MacDonald, who is in the process of applying for unemployment insurance benefits for the first time in his life.
``I wonder how the man who gave me the suspension would have felt if he had been the one to walk up (to the engine after the derailment) wondering if I was alive or dead,'' he said, adding he is considering sending his suspension notice and the dispatcher's tape of the derailment to Ed Broadbent, John turner, and Minister of Transport, John Crosbie.
Mr. MacDonald returns to work Sept. 10, but will then take his six weeks holidays, which he can not take as part of his suspension.
Meanwhile, a Railway Transport Committee official in Moncton said the RTC's investigation should be complete within two weeks.
Vernon Mann, in charge of the investigation, said the findings will be then prepared into a report and forwarded to Ottawa.
The investigation was announced following the accident by the Canadian Transport Commission under Section 226 of the Railway Act.
The Big River derailment occurred the same day as a derailment in Nova Scotia, which prompted the invoking of Section 226.