March 25, 2015 / 7:59 PM / 2 years ago

Canada transport minister says spate of CN Rail accidents no fluke

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Canada's Transport Minister Lisa Raitt speaks during an interview with Reuters in Ottawa March 25, 2015.Chris Wattie

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Three Canadian National Railway Co derailments in the same area in three weeks, two of them involving oil trains, cannot be explained away as a fluke of nature, Canada's transport minister said Wednesday, adding she is satisfied for now with steps CN has taken to prevent another accident.

CN Rail oil trains came off the tracks and caught fire near the small northern Ontario town of Gogama on both Feb. 14 and March 7. A third train hauling empty cars derailed in the same area on March 5.

"I'm concerned about it ... three in a row is significant," Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in an interview in her parliamentary office. "There must be reasons behind it. It cannot just be a fluke of nature."

An initial Transportation Safety Board of Canada probe said track faults could be responsible for all three accidents.

Raitt said the transport ministry - which regulates railways in Canada - has inspected "every single inch of that rail" along the 300-mile (485 km) stretch in question and is analyzing the data.

"They are going to make sure that if they find anything that they will utilize the tools they have, which includes prosecution under the Railway Safety Act," she said.

In response to the accidents, CN Rail has reduced the speed of trains in the area and boosted its own inspections. Raitt said she was satisfied with the railway's response "for now".

Raitt also said her officials would consult academic experts about the risk assessments that CN Rail has done on its tracks "to say 'Are we missing something here?'"

The rapid rise in the transport of crude oil by rail in recent years has increased concerns about the chances of a disaster. A runaway oil train leveled the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in July 2013, killing 47 people.

Federal legislators who grilled CN Rail executives at a parliamentary committee meeting on Tuesday suggested crude oil trains would be safer if they ran with fewer cars.

Raitt said her officials were looking at train lengths as part of their investigation, but expressed little obvious enthusiasm for the idea.

"If we shorten the trains, then you're going to have more locomotives going and ... more trains and more traffic in Canada and what does that mean?" she said.

In the wake of Lac-Megantic, Canada and the United States both ordered tanker cars be strengthened, and are now working together on standards for a new generation of tougher cars.

Canada issued its proposals on March 11 and Raitt said she was confident the two countries would agree on the specifications for a single model.

Raitt also said the government would decide within days on whether to extend its requirements that CN Rail and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd, the country's other big railway, haul a minimum amount of grain.

Editing by Peter Galloway and Jeffrey Hodgson

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