While they are called “sidewalk” plows many of these small units actually perform work on roadways and other areas where they may be struck by larger vehicles. But there has never been any consideration put to evaluating their safety for the plow driver.

On Tuesday morning, January 9, 2018 a sidewalk snow plow was struck by an eastbound freight train at the Colborne Street Crossing of the Canadian National Railway tracks in London, Ontario. The driver of the plow, Malcolm Trudell, was killed.

Reports filed by local news media indicated that Trudell had begun plowing activities at approximately 2200 hours on the previous night and, given that the collision occurred at about 1000 hours on the following day, would mean that Trudell could have been working as much as 12 hours.

Reports indicated that the snow plow was northbound when it was struck and was pushed about 50 metres to the east. Furthermore, witnesses claimed that the train struck the front “snowblower” portion of the plow and thus did not strike the plow directly into its side. If such information were correct then a post-impact travel distance of about 50 metres would yield a train speed of about 80 km/h, if this had been a direct impact. The suggestion that the impact was a glancing one would indicate a higher speed of the train. Thus this information would lead into question why a freight train was travelling so quickly through the downtown area of the City of London. As if often the case, evidence reported by witnesses and written in news articles is often in error but the post-impact travel distance needs to be revealed by police.

A troubling aspect of the matter is that London City Police apparently referred all further questions to the “CN police”. There is always a concern that police are paid by the same entity (The City of London) as the potential defendant (Also The City of London) and this could lead to a bias in the investigation. This concern might be heightened when the CN police now become the investigators of an incident where their company could be the defendant.

The local news media reported that a railway safety expert, Richard Plokhaar, analysed the safety of 65 railway crossings in London and determined that the crossing at Colborne Street was the second-most dangerous. It was not explained what criteria and methodology were used in this assessment. It was noted however that, when the arms come down to block the roadway, no such arms block the actual sidewalk. Thus the argument could be posed that the plow driver could have entered into the crossing not realizing that the arms had come down on the road and that a train was approaching.

Others would pose the alternative argument that lights were flashing, a bell was ringing and the train let out a horn for what one witness described as about 30 seconds. If the train was travelling at 80 km/h or 22.2 metres per second, and if the impact occurred at about 30 seconds after the sounding of the horn then the start of the horn would have occurred when the train was about 666 metres west of the crossing. While that is possible it does not seem likely. Such a distance would be about halfway between Wellington Road and Richmond Street and it is questionable whether the train engineer could see the crossing at Colborne Street from such a distance.

What is notable is that an eastbound train does not pass through any level crossings in the west part of the City until Colborne Street and it could be travelling quite quickly because of the lack of concern with such crossings. As the Colborne Street crossing the first, at-grading crossing, one would think that special care and perhaps a slower speed would be needed  so as not to catch persons by surprise.

Even if the conditions at the Colborne Street crossing are set aside, there was still major concerns about the environment in which drivers of these sidewalk plows must work. As noted in the photo at the top of this article, some sidewalk plows must operate within the travel lanes of a road or highway in order to clear some portions of the roadside. In the photo above the driver is working to clear snow in a transit bus lane at the intersection of Oxford Street and Highbury. This is a high traffic-volume location. Normally when work is being performed in a travel lane or close to it a variety of warning signs need to be erected to warn drivers. But when a small snow plow is plowing snow that signage never exists.

Below is another view of the snow as it travels in the southbound lane of Highbury Ave, carrying a pile of snow. Note that the cage around the driver’s head does not allow much visibility and the lifting arms of the plow normally rise to the driver’s eye height on occasions.

View of the sidewalk snow plow working at the south-west corner of Oxford Street and Highbury Ave in east London.

Another view of the plow is shown below and we can see the limited visibility available to the sides and behind the vehicle.

View looking at the rear of the sidewalk plow. Note how the lift arms of the plow would block the driver’s vision and there is very limited visibility to rear because of the structure of the machine.

On January 27, 2014, we documented a Bobcat, sidewalk snow plow travelling north on the west sidewalk of Clarke Road as it passed over the railway tracks of the Goderich-Exeter railway line, as noted below. This is the same unit, S185, that is shown above at the Oxford and Highbury location.

View of a Bobcat sidewalk plow travelling north along the west sidewalk of Clarke Road at the railway tracks just north of Oxford Street.

A closer view of the driver in the cab below shows that he is wearing ear protection.

The driver of the Bobcat, sidewalk, snow plow is wearing ear protection likely against the loud noises experienced during the plowing operations. Such noise protection is not helpful when needing to hear the bells at a rail crossing or the horn of the locomotive.

Clearly such ear protection is not helpful when the driver needs to hear the bell at the railway crossing or the horn of a locomotive approaching the plow’s location.

There are several types of sidewalk plows that operate along the streets of London. Below is an example of a Terex plow. This unit also has limited visibility available to the driver.

An example of a Terex plow operating on the east sidewalk of Hale Street in east London in February of 2015.

Another example of a different walkway plow is shown below. This is an older unit displaying the “City of London” patch on the lower part of its left door. It only has  a front plow and therefore now arms that might lift and blow the driver’s view. There is an attachment in the rear possibly for storing sand or salt.

An older model snow plow travelling on the north sidewalk of Oxford Street near Wellington St on January 5, 2015.

Below is yet another variate of the snowplow that has the frontal appearance of a small tractor. Again, it has no arms but just a forward snowblower attachment.

Another sidewalk plow that appears to be like a small tractor was observed on the west sidewalk of Clarke Road just north of Dundas Street on January 7, 2018.A closer view of the cab of this snowplow is shown below. Here we can see that the driver is not wearing any ear protection and he is also not wearing a helmet.

A closer view of the cab of the vehicle shows that the driver is not using any ear protection but he also does not wear a helmet.

In all the examples we have seen there is no evidence that any of the drivers of the plows actually wear helmets. Yet, looking at the upper surroundings of the cabs there also does not appear to be any protection if the driver’s head should strike the interior during an impact. We are accustomed to seeing the advanced head protection afforded in modern passenger vehicles without raising a thought that these protections are mandated by the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (CMVSS) and their U.S. counterparts (FMVSS). It is highly unlikely that these standards are applied to the interiors of these small snowplows yet the danger of sustaining a major head injury could be greater than average.

Thus even a simple $35 dollar bicycling helmet could improve the safety of the drivers of these small snowplows. While one might say that such a helmet might be no match for an impact with a massive train locomotive such a conclusion is premature. If an impact is a glancing one, such as described the Colborne Street collision, the lack of any structural intrusion to the cab interior means that there could have been sufficient opportunity to survive provided that other safety devices such as a seat-belt were used.

Certainly there is a need to examine these issues more thoroughly and it is reported that an inquest might be called into this incident.