Jane Huang can’t remember the crash that changed her life forever.
On May 8, 2014, a freight train travelling 46 km/h smashed into her grey Mercedes at a rail crossing in Langley, B.C., slamming her car into a ditch.
“I was told I was hit by a train. I thought I was in a dream,” Huang told CBC News, recalling waking up paralyzed two weeks later in hospital.
Doctors told her she’d been airlifted from the scene at the Smith Crescent crossing and had suffered a traumatic head injury and that her spinal cord was partially severed and she’d struggle to ever walk again.
“How could this happen to me? I was the person always driving carefully,” said the mechanical engineer with an MBA and certification in project management.
Huang says her disbelief turned to anger after she discovered that for more than 25 years Transport Canada officials repeatedly identified safety problems along the rail corridor, including at the Smith Crescent crossing, but together with Canadian Pacific Railway and the Township of Langley did little to fix them.
In 2016, CBC News identified the Smith Crescent rail crossing as one of the 25 most dangerous in Canada based on crash records collected by the Transportation Safety Board.
Since 2000, the site has seen five serious train accidents, including one that killed a pedestrian.
The crossing has no automated bells, lights or gates to warn of oncoming trains. Instead, the rail line is marked with a stop sign, a white “X” and a caution sign that says, “No Stopping ON Tracks.”
The crossing is also positioned only a few metres from Glover Road, a busy provincial highway. The track, which runs parallel to Glover, is so close to the highway that motorists approaching on Smith Crescent have no choice but to stop and partially block the tracks while they wait for a chance to pull out.
Huang launched a $5-million lawsuit against Canadian Pacific, which owns the rail line, and CN Rail, which was operating on the track the day she was hit. The civil trial begins today in Vancouver.
She acknowledges she may have failed to fully stop before the crossing, but she says the markings are confusing and that having just started a new job nearby two weeks earlier, she assumed the rail line was possibly abandoned given the lack of lights, bells or gates.
Timeline of trouble
Transport Canada has been aware of problems at the Smith Crescent crossing since 1990, when it conducted a safety evaluation and concluded the crossing lacks adequate space for cars.
Four years later, Transport Canada wrote to CP, the Township of Langley and B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Highways recommending the closure of the Smith Crescent crossing. That never happened.
In late 2002, a gravel truck blocking the crossing was struck by a freight train, causing a major derailment. Transport Canada ordered the municipality to prohibit large trucks from using the crossing, and the township quickly put up signs redirecting trucks. Transport Canada also called on the province to install traffic lights on Glover Road and recommended CP put in automated signals at the rail track. But neither of those things ever happened.
In 2007, after another accident at the crossing, CP, the township and the province agreed to install automated gates, warning lights, bells and a traffic light at the highway intersection at a cost of roughly $280,000, and secured 80 per cent of the funding from Transport Canada’s Grade Crossing Improvement Program.
Ten years later, none of that’s happened either. It was postponed amidst a yet-to-be-realized plan for a larger redesign including four other nearby crossings along the Glover Road corridor that have experienced similar crashes due to the rail line’s proximity to the highway. In 2015, for example, an ambulance was hit by a train as it was stopped and partially blocking the tracks at Crush Crescent, killing an 87-year-old patient on board and injuring two paramedics.
“Everyone agreed that [the Smith Crescent crossing] needed to be upgraded,” Huang’s lawyer, Stephen Gibson, told CBC News.
“But you amass all of this evidence, it just became clear that what happened to [Huang] … was eventually going to happen to someone. It just happened to happen to [her].”
Gibson says studies show the installation of bells and lights at rail crossings reduce the number of accidents by nearly 100 per cent. He also says CP has posted record profits in recent years and questions why some of that money hasn’t been spent on safety improvements repeatedly recommended by Transport Canada.
Following Huang’s 2014 accident, there was another near identical crash at Smith Crescent in late 2015, where again a car forced to block the track before pulling out onto Glover Road was hit by a train. In that case, no one was hurt.
The crossing remains largely as it was in the 1990s, only with the addition of street signs prohibiting large trucks and some brush cleared away.
One of the allegations in Huang’s lawsuit, none of which has been tested in court, is that vegetation at the crossing made it impossible to see oncoming trains.
In a court document obtained by CBC News, Canadian Pacific’s own police officer who investigated the crash noted the blackberry bushes nearby were so dense that a driver “must proceed to within a metre of the rail in order to see down the track.”
Other documents reveal that two days after Huang’s accident CP arranged to have the brush cleared around the crossing.
‘Not an ideal situation’
Despite making repeated recommendations over the past 27 years, Transport Canada, the regulator of federal railways, has never issued any orders against CP to redesign the crossing.
In a statement to CBC News, officials said crossing safety and design are the responsibility of the railway and the road authorities. Despite its own warnings to CP and the Township of Langley, Transport Canada says it has inspected the Smith Crescent crossing and found it to be “compliant with applicable requirements.”
The Township of Langley declined to comment for this story. The municipality was originally named in Huang’s lawsuit, but the two parties recently settled out of court. Neither Huang nor the township will discuss the settlement.
CP’s court filings deny any negligence and argue the crossing is marked with appropriate warning signs.
CEO Keith Creel declined to discuss the specifics of the case during an interview with CBC News last week.
“I’ll take a look at it. I’ll tell you that,” Creel pledged when shown photos of the space on Smith Crescent where motorists are forced to stop between the track and the busy highway.
“I think when society grew, that railroad track was there. When they put [the crossing] there they should have taken that into account. I think this setup, this scenario … is not an ideal situation.”
‘Strong desire to gain my life back’
Huang says she can no longer work and is fighting to regain her mobility.
“I have a very strong desire to gain my life back. I don’t like depending on other people. I feel now I’ve become the burden to the society. I just feel so depressed,” she said.
She says she hopes her lawsuit will force CP to make changes, in addition to paying damages for her health-care costs and lost quality of life.
“I feel this crossing is unbelievably dangerous,” she said.
“I just hope at least they can upgrade the crossing … The second wish I have is that the railway company could upgrade the railway system for all the crossings in the whole country because this could happen to other people.”
(Timeline of safety issues at Smith Crescent crossing)
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