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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canadian safety inspectors warned North America's railroads on Thursday to find up to 12,000 freight car wheel sets that remain in use, despite having been recalled years ago for safety problems.
The wheel sets, made by Canadian National Railway between 1998 and 2001, have been blamed for at least 15 derailments in Canada and an unknown number of accidents in the United States, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
Twelve of the Canadian derailments occurred after Canadian National discovered the problem, and the Association of American Railroads alerted other carriers that the defective wheel sets should be taken out of service.
Thursday's TSB warning stems from an investigation into a 2006 derailment of a Canadian Pacific Railway freight train in Buckskin, Ontario, that was caused by a broken CN-built wheel set on a CP freight car.
That wheel set was among some 43,800 produced by CN's Transcona shops between April 1998 and February 2001 using a process that made them susceptible becoming loose on curving track and derailing, the TSB said.
CN noticed a problem with loose wheels in 2000, but did not figure out the cause until 2001 and, along with AAR, warned carriers to remove the faulty wheel sets -- something that was supposed to have been completed by July 2006.
The TSB warned that "shortfalls" in the recall process meant some 25 percent of the faulty wheels sets are still rolling down North America's tracks.
"As a result, many wheel sets were permitted to remain in service, or, as in this occurrence, removed from the original car, reconditioned, and placed under a second car," the TSB report said.
The board, which investigates only Canadian transportation accidents, said Canada should make its railways adopt better procedures for tracking wheels. The TSB does share its findings with U.S. officials.
It also chastised the industry for requiring data on critical components like wheels to be kept only five years, saying flaws can take longer than that to develop and computers made that archive standard, laid out by the AAR's guidelines, outdated.
A spokesman for the AAR said he could not comment on the TSB's report because he was not familiar with the case.
The group, whose members include all of North America's largest railroads, has authority to set safety standards for freight cars as they are transferred between different carriers.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson