21 Nov Collision with a Train

The case of Chand v. Martin, 2017 BCSC 660, involved a collision between a motor vehicle and a train owned and operated by Southern Railway of British Columbia Limited (“Southern”). The accident occurred at a railway crossing in Surrey, BC. As a result of the accident, the Plaintiff and his two passengers sustained serious injuries, with one of the passenger’s injuries being fatal.

The Plaintiff sued Southern for negligence in maintaining the railway crossing lights.  He argued that the lights did not activate to warn those travelling northbound towards the intersection that a train was about to cross. In addition, he argued that at least one of the train’s crew members was negligently carrying out their duties at the time of the accident, and Southern was vicariously liability.

The key question the Court had to determine was whether the railway crossing lights were working. The evidence on this matter was split between that of independent eye witnesses testifying that the warning lights on the south side of the Scott Road Crossing did not initiate, versus expert evidence tendered on behalf of Southern, as well as the testimony of Southern employees, maintaining the opposite.

Two independent witnesses were driving northbound, one of them directly behind the Plaintiff.  Both witnesses said that the signal lights were not activated, nor did they hear the crossing bells. They testified that shortly after the collision, the signal lights came on and the bells were activated. Both confirmed that the Plaintiff was not speeding or driving erratically immediately before the collision. A southbound driver who was north of the crossway when the collision occurred said the signal lights on her side of the crossing did activate. However, she also testified that she could not recall hearing any bells or whistles as the train approached.

Members of the train crew testified, including the train engineer who controlled the train’s acceleration, braking and whistle. He operated the train from the front right of the cabin and could not see out of its left side. He was unable to testify as to whether the crossing lights were operating for northbound traffic but did testify that the lights on the opposite side of the tracks were operating.  He also testified that he sounded his horn prior to entering the crossing but he was not sure how many seconds before entering the crossing he did this.

The train’s conductor also testified. He was responsible for maintaining a lookout for hazards on or near the train tracks, and communicating any potential hazards to the engineer. At the time of the accident, he was located at the front left of the cabin, so he was able to see northbound traffic. He testified that he saw the signal lights on the south side of the tracks operating normally in the moments leading up to the crash. However, the Court found him to be an unreliable witness and concluded that he did not observe the signal lights flashing in the moments before the collision, nor was he keeping a regular lookout.

The designated signal maintainer for that railway crossing testified that the signal system’s circuitry was complex. He admitted that any machine can fail, including the crossing lights. He conceded that this could include intermittent failure. He also noted that the lights facing southbound traffic were on a separate circuit from those facing northbound traffic, meaning that it was possible for lights on one side to fail but not the other. This was confirmed by an expert witness on signal maintenance. He also testified regarding a data recorder on the train which noted when the train’s whistle was blown, though not at the correct time or in the correct manner.

Overall, the Court found that the Southern did not violate the standard of care placed upon it to reasonably maintain the signal lights at the crossing.  However, the Court concluded that the conductor either saw the signal lights were not working at the crossing and failed to tell the engineer to brake in a timely way, or he failed to notice that the lights were inoperative because he did not maintain his duty to keep a proper lookout. Since the conductor failed to maintain his lookout duties while in the course of his employment and/or because the conductor violated the internal safety protocols imposed on him by Southern, the Court found Southern vicariously liable for his negligence.