Railway accident records at Library and Archives Canada

By Rebecca Murray

In recent years, large-scale railway derailments and collisions have caught our attention and have become questions of public safety, but this is not a new chapter in Canadian transportation history. Rail accidents dot the history of railways in Canada and have shaped the lives of many Canadians.

A black and white photograph of a partially derailed train in a train yard. Snow covers the ground and a city can be seen in the background.

Cars off track at Strachan Avenue, Toronto, December 19, 1916. Photograph taken by John Boyd (MIKAN 3364261)

Have you witnessed a railway accident? Was a family member or friend involved in a railway accident? Do you have an interest in railway history in a specific region or for a specific railway company? These are just some of the many reasons that researchers consult Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Reference Services regarding railway accident records.

Starting your railway accident research

First, gather as much information as you can about the rail accident prior to contacting or visiting LAC. The exact date and location are extremely important, as are details such as individuals involved and if possible, type of accident (e.g. public crossing, derailment, crash). If you are missing some of these details, consult newspapers on microfilm or online before undertaking your search with LAC’s online tools. Accident records are usually organized chronologically by date, so the date is key for you to start your research with the correct institution.

LAC holds rail accident records for investigations that began in 1990 or earlier, whereas the Transportation Safety Board maintains an online database for investigations from 1991 to the present.

Records at LAC

Railway accident records can be found in various series of the Canadian Transport Commission fonds (RG46) depending on the time period and type of accident.

I suggest relying on the following search strategies and finding aids to begin your research:

Finding Aid # Format Time Period How to Use the Finding Aid
46-21 Archives Search 1838–1987 In the first box, click on the down arrow and select Finding aid number. In the box to the right, type 46-21. In the second row of boxes, the default is Any keyword. Type in accident in the box to its right. Press Enter. In the results list, you can use the right menu to sort all results by date, or you can limit your results to a specific decade.
46-10 Online Finding Aid 46-10 1904–1949, 1964–1972 The finding aid is arranged alphabetically and then chronologically by railway company. Each report varies in content, but often references accidents.
46-55 Online Finding Aid 46-55 1900–1992 Accidents at public crossings arranged alphabetically by geographic subdivision
46-58 Online Finding Aid 46-58 1982–1983 Chronological
46-59 Online Finding Aid 46-59 1984 Chronological

There are also additional resources online and onsite at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St., Ottawa. You can use Archives Search to do general keyword searches with terms like “rail” AND “accident” (or “derailment” or “collision”) and use the right menu to sort all results by date, or you can limit your results to a specific decade.

If you follow the steps described above and still can’t find what you’re looking for, don’t despair! Reference Services staff are always just a call or click away. You are also welcome to visit in person. No matter how you contact us, we are happy to help researchers with their questions.


Rebecca Murray is a reference archivist in the Reference Services Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Tips for aviation accident research, part 2

By Mathieu Sabourin

In our previous blog post on civilian aviation accidents, we covered the main search principles for finding files on this topic in our archives. We showed you that records could generally be found in four record groups:

  • Department of National Defence fonds: R112 (1923–1936)
  • Department of Transport fonds: R184 (1936–1984)
  • Canadian Aviation Safety Board fonds: R13086 (1984–1989)
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada fonds: R1009 (1990–present)

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of the first two record groups so you can better focus your searches.

Department of National Defence fonds

After the First World War, the Royal Canadian Air Force served as a civilian airline for the government and was therefore responsible for investigating aircraft accidents. The Civil Aviation Branch was created for this purpose in 1923.

At the time, the Department used a subject-block numeric classification system. Blocks 1021 and 1100 (all the files starting with these numbers) were reserved for aviation accident records. For example:

Screenshot of the results of an archives search. A big red arrow indicates the reference to Block 1021.

Example of a file from Block 1021.

Continue reading

Published Sources for Aviation Accident Reports

By Megan Butcher

In our previous blog post on searching for aviation accident reports, you learned that you need to know a few basic details before starting your search:

  • Aircraft model
  • Accident date and location
  • Aircraft registration number
  • Aircraft type (civilian or military)

This is a great starting point if you have those details already. But what if you don’t? There are a few different ways to find what you need.

To start with the most broadly accessible resources, while the following two databases aren’t exhaustive, they do include quite a number of Canadian aircraft accidents, including the first fatal accident in 1913:

Local newspapers can also be a great resource to find at least some of the details. You could start your newspaper research here at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) by checking out our microform holdings. If you aren’t able to visit us in Ottawa, you could contact your local library instead to see if they’re able to borrow the reels you need from us or another library.

If you’re still missing some important details, you may have some luck with the Canadian Aviation Safety Board annual reports and aircraft accident synopses. Most of the entries are very short, but sometimes they include a surprising amount of occasionally heartbreaking information:

A typewritten document on white paper giving details about an aircraft accident that occurred on September 8, 1978.

Synopsis of an aircraft accident from the annual report of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, 1980, Issue 5, p 56 (AMICUS 2828768)

Our collection includes many issues from the following years:

  • 1967: Accidents to Canadian registered aircraft. Canadian Air Transportation Administration. Aircraft Accident Investigation Division. AMICUS 3236225
  • 1968-74: Aircraft accidents. Canadian Air Transportation Administration. Aircraft Accident Investigation Division. AMICUS 11371
  • 1975-84: Synopses of aircraft accidents; civil aircraft in Canada. AMICUS 2828768
  • 1984-89: Annual report. Canadian Aviation Safety Board.  AMICUS 5348822

There are also two other publications that we don’t have, but about which you could ask your local librarian:

  • 1947-1958: Canada. Civil Aviation Division. Annual report on aircraft accidents: 1947-1958. — [Ottawa], Dept. of Transport, Air Services Branch, Civil Aviation Division
  • 1960-1963: Canada. Civil Aviation Branch. A survey of accidents to aircraft of Canadian registry, 1959-1962. — Ottawa, [1960-1963]

If you find anything in our collection you’d like to see, you can view it onsite, request a reproduction, or talk to your local library about the possibility of borrowing it through our Loans to Other Institutions program

.And, as always, if you’re stumped and need help, don’t hesitate to ask us a question!


Megan Butcher is a Reference Librarian in Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Tips for aviation accident research

Let’s be honest: Finding information on a civil aviation accident is no small feat. In the federal government, organizational changes involving aviation accident management and the evolution of records classification are making the researcher’s task even harder.

But seek and, generally, ye shall find! So let’s look at how to go about researching an aviation accident effectively.

First, you need to have certain basic information on the accident you’re researching:

  • Aircraft model
  • Accident date and location
  • Aircraft registration number
  • Aircraft type (civilian or military)

This will make things easier, because the finding aids related to aviation accidents are put together based on that basic information.

You must then determine where the records you are looking for might be located, i.e., select the right record group. The following reference table will help guide your first steps:

Years of Responsibility Department Record Group Number
1923–1936 Department of National Defence

Civil Aviation Branch

RG24 / R112
1936–1984 Department of Transport
Air Services Branch (1936-1970)
Canadian Air Transportation Administration (1970-1985)
RG12 / R184
1984–1989 Canadian Aviation Safety Board R13086
1990–present Transportation Safety Board RG156 / R1009

Each record group is divided into series and sub-series. For each of those subdivisions, you will need to consult a finding aid to determine whether a file exists pertaining to your research topic. It is a painstaking process, but some aids are available online (for example, the accession “Aviation Accident Reports 1919-1977“—RG12), which narrows down the research that needs to be done at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa.

Here are some things to take into consideration:

  • Two types of records pertain to accidents: the accident report and the occurrence investigation. They are not always filed in the same location, so you’ll have to check the entire record group to find them.
  • In the 1920s and 1930s, National Defence had the mandate to investigate accidents. Even if your research is on a civilian aircraft, consult RG24.
  • Your file could be located in the Central Registry (records originally stored in Ottawa) or in the regional registries (stored in the regions: Maritimes, Pacific, etc.).
  • Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection has gaps: we do not have all records pertaining to aviation accidents. Sometimes, a file simply does not exist.
  • Some records are still at the accession stage. They have been transferred to LAC but have not yet been processed by an archivist. If the description in our database contains a note to that effect, consult the links under the heading “Accession” (see “Scope and Content” in connection with the note “Please consult the related accessions”).

For example, here is a screenshot associated with the series Central Registry Files from the Transportation Safety Board fonds:

Screenshot showing that the files have indeed been acquired, but not yet processed.

List of accessions from Central Registry Files (RG156)

Each record group has its own challenges but the basic concepts explained here will help you to conduct your research effectively.