Accidents plagued Grand Trunk Railway after 1900

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week’s column described the derailment on the Grand Trunk line near Ponsonby that claimed the lives of two infants and injured more than a score of passengers.

This week I want to step back and look at the context in which this accident took place.

Deaths in railway accidents received wide publicity, and by the dawning of the 20th century it was normal practice to hold a thorough coroner’s inquest after such a mishap. The evidence at these reveals much about railway operating practices of the time and the management techniques employed by railways.

The inquest following the Ponsonby tragedy, despite crown attorney Henry Peterson’s determination to identify the cause, typifies the way the Grand Trunk handled these cases.

Operating employees, obviously, covered up for one another, while occasionally displaying a casual and cavalier attitude to rules and proper procedures. Middle management was adept at shifting blame to someone else. The railway’s lawyers insisted the evidence clearly showed the accident was neither predictable nor preventable.

The performance at the inquest covered a multiplicity of management and operating problems suffered by the Grand Trunk during the half century of its existence. Controlled from England, the company had sent out a series of senior managers with no knowledge or understanding of Canadian conditions.  Periodically, the board of directors attempted to micro-manage the company from England.

After 1870, the Grand Trunk focused its energies on capturing the traffic in commodities from Chicago to eastern ports. This proved to be a disastrous decision, tying up a large portion of the line’s rolling stock and manpower for business that seldom generated much profit due to intense competition.

Nevertheless, the Grand Trunk continued to pursue this business through the 1880s and 1890s.

During the 1880s the Grand Trunk merged and amalgamated with three other railways in Ontario. The important one for Wellington was the Hamilton-based Great Western.

This was a reactive decision: Grand Trunk managers feared these lines would fall into the hands of its upstart rival, the Canadian Pacific.

Like most mergers and amalgamations, this one produced disappointing results. Financing costs for the acquisitions ate up all the profits the new lines generated. The amalgamations tripled the size of the Grand Trunk system. The company failed to eliminate redundant duplicate trackage and had difficulty managing the huge company efficiently. Employee morale and enthusiasm waned through the 1890s.

To squeeze profit out of the bloated system, managers cut back on maintenance and reinvestment. The branch lines, such as those in Wellington County, suffered the most. Bad tracks resulted in slower running times, and trains that seldom arrived on schedule, impeding the flow of passengers, mail and express. Soon the risk of derailment escalated.

Aging rolling stock meant that breakdowns occurred frequently. By 1900, the average locomotive on the line was more than 20 years old. To keep trains moving at all, employees resorted to a loose interpretation of operating rules and safety precautions.

The appointment of American-born Charles Hays as general manager in 1896 soon produced a change in the fortunes of the company. With a reputation for ruthless efficiency, Hays was able to wring more profit out of the system. He started to buy more powerful locomotives and to upgrade trackage.

Like his predecessors, though, Hays focused on the main lines and the branches continued to suffer. Blunt to the point of rudeness, he alienated the public and did nothing to build employee morale. He treated with contempt the rising clamour for better facilities and improvements on the branch lines.

Branch line freight customers, such as those in Wellington County, frequently could not get empty cars when they requested them. As well, the light trackage restricted freight cars to 10-ton capacity at a time when the 30-ton cart was becoming the standard in North America. Small town businessmen took a hostile stance, accusing the Grand Trunk of undermining their local economies.

Then, after 1900, the inevitable accidents came. On the former Great Western line northwest from Guelph to Elora and Fergus, the Grand Trunk had done virtually no major maintenance since it amalgamated with the GWR in 1882.

In 1900 a broken wheel on an old freight car caused a derailment, with no injuries. Three years later, the derailment described in last week’s Advertiser occurred near Ponsonby.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Aug. 28, 1904, a locomotive and caboose, with a five-man crew, were returning to Palmerston. Anxious to get home, they ignored the speed restrictions on the line. As they were passing under a road bridge at Aboyne, an axle broke on the locomotive and a driving wheel flew off, damaging the bridge supports

 The locomotive continued on, over the Grand River bridge. The engineer managed to get it stopped near the Beatty Line. Only by divine intervention did it stay on the rails.

Eight months later, at the switch leading to a siding at Marden, a 32-car southbound freight train partially derailed. A wheel bearing on a car toward the end of the train burned out, causing the axle to jam. This pulled the wheels from the car, which dropped to the track. It was an older flatcar, loaded with timber. Six more cars of timber and two boxcars loaded with general merchandise piled into the wreckage.

These bearings should have been checked before the train had departed Palmerston. Dozens of people flocked to the scene to watch the wrecking crews from Stratford and Palmerston clear the pileup.

The accident occurred on Easter Sunday. The pious among the crowd saw the wreck as a divine judgment for desecrating the Sabbath.

No one suffered injuries in this wreck, because the train had been travelling at slow speed. Because there was no death or injury, no inquest was held.

Two months later, in June 1905, quick reactions by engineers averted what could have been a major disaster. The Ontario Agricultural College was holding its annual spring open house. The Grand Trunk scheduled three special trains to Guelph to bring farmers from the north and west.

No. 17, the regular morning northbound train, had to pass these on its way to Elora. The engineer received orders to pass the first of these specials before leaving Guelph, and to enter the siding at Marden to let the second and third pass.

No. 17 (the same train involved in the wreck in last week’s column) waited in the Marden siding for the second train to pass. Then the engineer pulled out onto the main line. He continued as usual for about five miles, then noticed a southbound train approaching. Instantly he slammed on the air brakes.

Fortunately, the engineer in the third special also noticed the approaching train. It consisted of eight coaches crammed with farmers, and pulled by two locomotives. The trains stopped less than 100 feet apart.

The written orders for No. 17 clearly stated to wait at Marden for Specials No. 2 and 3. Both the conductor and engineer made the ridiculous claim that they mistook the “3” for “2”. No charges were laid against the crew. It was left to the railway to deal internally with this infraction, which might have led to many fatalities and injuries.

In the summer of 1908 the Grand Trunk finally started to make some investments in the line between Guelph and Palmerston. Grading work eliminated much of the hill-and-dale character of the line. The independent engineers at the 1903 inquest had recommended that.

Deeper ballast and new, heavier rails permitted faster running and heavier locomotives. Crews rebuilt most of the smaller bridges and culverts. In July 1909 the replacement of the bridge over the Grand River completed the improvements to the line.

There were improvements and repairs to station buildings as well. All structures received a coat of paint in the Grand Trunk’s new gray-and-green scheme. By late 1909, new and heavier locomotives scurried up and down the line, and trains adhered more often to published schedules.

The improvements had a positive effect on morale. Overall, wrecks and derailments occurred only rarely after 1910.

(Note: The Grand Trunk Railway was acquired by the federal government in 1919 and was one of a number of railroads, which were merged to form the Canadian National Railway in 1923. Elora’s Grand Trunk Railway station was at the south end of town, beside Wellington Road 7 close to the site of the Gorge Restaurant. The Cotton Tail Trail follows part of the GTR rail line, which crossed the road (#7), turned and headed due south, past Ponsonby, through Marden and on to Guelph. In the other direction the tracks led through Aboyne, Fergus and then north on to Palmerston and beyond.)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Dec. 7, 2001.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015