Reg Learn and the ribbons of steel: Train expert’s career spans nearly 70 years

By Jamie Morris

How to even begin to do justice in a couple of pages to a distinguished career that spans close to 70 years? Reg Learn’s curriculum vitae alone runs to five densely-packed pages.

But let’s begin with that C.V. and his career arc. Reg trained as a locomotive engineer, starting in the steam era, but going on to operate electric, diesel electric, turbo and Bombardier LRC (light, rapid, comfortable) engines. In 1967 he entered railway management, moving steadily upwards, and 20 years later transferred to federal service with the Railway Transport Committee as Chief of Operations, Ontario District.

In 1990 a significant shift: he took on the position of Superintendent of Investigations for the newly proclaimed Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB). Safe rail operations has been his focus ever since. When he retired from the TSB he became an associate with Forensic Engineering Inc. in Burlington, providing litigation support in railway incident related court cases.

Don’t let the talk of “investigations,” “incidents,” and “forensic engineering” throw you off. Reg’s job has been to determine causes of what are sometimes harrowing crashes. As senior investigator he’s attended many major derailments, some requiring evacuation of areas. (In such situations railways try to establish a central on-site command post to ensure clear communication and direction.)

In addition, Reg has contributed to numerous reports, coordinated studies, chaired formal hearings, testified before a Parliamentary Review Commission, and frequently attended court, coroner inquests, and public hearings. Throughout his career he continually upgraded his qualifications. Entering management, he completed a two-year business administration program at the University of Toronto and additional course work at York.

To equip himself for investigations he’s taken courses on everything from tank car safety, transportation of hazardous goods, and track train dynamics, to human factors in investigation (which included topics such as sleep disorders and circadian rhythms). Some of these were at the U.S. Transportation Test Centre in Colorado; others were at the Government of Canada training facility in Cornwall.

So, that C.V. documents an impressive career, but let’s take a different approach now. Join me as I join him at his home in Lindsay to hear about a few scenes from his work-life.

After introducing me to his wife, Jean (who was born on a farm in Little Britain and worked for many years in banking at what was then Victoria and Grey Trust), Reg leads me down to what he calls his “sanctuary.”

On one wall are certificates and photos, including one of a helipad. Another wall is dominated by a black and white photo of an immense locomotive, CN 4100, a ‘pilot’ engine employed to provide additional horsepower to assist tonnage freights up steep ascending grades.

Reg settles in by a large desk. He has white hair and a white moustache. The eyes behind his black-rimmed glasses have — you need to experience this — a laser-like focus. When he listens, his full attention is trained on you. When he talks he chooses his words with precision.

Scene One: June 17, 1950. Reg, not yet 18, and in the midst of mid-June finals at Sarnia Collegiate Institute and Technical School is interviewed by a CN master mechanic and a motive power supervisor. He’s then sent to Toronto for a medical and interview followed by an unpaid three weeks completing several trial (or familiarization) trips

A math exam is left unfinished as he officially enters “motive power service” and begins the process of three years of mechanical examination and railway operating rules to gain certification as a locomotive engineer.

Three years ago, at 83, Reg completes the high school math course he’d skipped opting to begin his working career for Canadian National Railways. He’s not one to leave matters unfinished.

Scene Two: At 5:01 am on July 31, 1991 a sleeper car, lounge car and four coaches of the Silver Star, a northbound Amtrak train derail near Camden, South Carolina. The Washington Post reports, “So forceful was the impact of the train on the freight cars that the stainless steel was ripped off the frames of three of the six passenger cars.” Eight die and 76 are injured.

A short time later Reg’s director of investigation in Ottawa called to request he catch the next flight to Charlotte, where they would meet, rent a vehicle, and drive to the accident site.

Reg describes their late-night arrival: “State Troopers in rain-slickers, the barrels of their shotguns visible, were at the road-blocks set up at the crossing. Here we were in raincoats and hardhats displaying Canadian flags, armed with flashlights. We were escorted to the site and left there.”

They began by walking the perimeter. At the track switch Reg found a broken-off piece of disk plate. They went through the coaches, witnessing the devastation, then Reg levered himself under the derailed cars. His flashlight picked out a disk plate with a missing piece. What he’d found earlier fit like a jigsaw.

It would prove to be a key piece of evidence in determining the cause of the derailment.

A final note: It’s reassuring to know that, asked how often he’d not been able to determine the cause of an incident, he answered dryly, “Not to date.”

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