TORONTO (Reuters) - A Canadian National Railway train carrying crude oil and propane derailed and caught fire in New Brunswick on Tuesday night after the emergency brakes were activated, federal safety officials said on Wednesday.
The accident, the latest in a string of derailments that have put the surging crude-by-rail business under scrutiny, involved 17 cars on the railway’s main line, Canadian National Chief Executive Claude Mongeau told a news conference. A locomotive also derailed, the railway said.
Five loaded tank cars carrying crude from western Canada to Irving Oil’s Saint John refinery and four carrying propane were among the derailed cars, CN said.
There were no injuries, but the fire that followed the derailment burned through the night. CN spokesman Mark Hallman said the most recent check on Wednesday showed two propane tank cars and one crude tank car were on fire.
Approximately 150 residents were evacuated, local officials said.
“At this point, the issue is contained, but of course things are evolving and we will be addressing the situation with the greatest possible safety,” said Mongeau.
“It’s premature to talk about the exact content of each car, but the origin of the crude is from Western Canada.”
CN said it will reroute trains through alternate lines.
“The exact sequence of events has yet to be determined,” said Transportation Safety Board (TSB) official Dan Holbrook.
While no one was hurt, the accident revived memories of a devastating derailment last July, when a runaway train carrying light crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region exploded in the heart of the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47.
The CN train was not carrying the ultra-light Bakken oil from North Dakota that has exploded in other recent crude-by-rail accidents.
However, other types of very light crude are also produced in Canada, and several market sources said it was likely that the train was hauling one of these grades.
“Based on what we typically see processed at Irving’s refinery, a lighter crude is most likely what was contained in those rail cars, although we cannot know for sure,” said David Bouckhout, senior commodity strategist at TD Securities.
The accident comes amid signs of a tipping point in the intensifying debate over improving the safety of North American oil-by-rail shipments, although it is unclear whether some of the measures under consideration would have prevented Tuesday’s fire.
The top U.S. regulator told Reuters that they should know within weeks whether shippers of Bakken crude have been mislabeling more-dangerous light-crude cargoes.
A large rail car manufacturer called for the industry to quickly press ahead with rules to retrofit older tank cars to make them safer. It is unclear whether older DOT-111 cars, long seen as flawed, were involved in New Brunswick.
After the Lac-Megantic disaster, Canada told railways they will have to start telling municipalities what goods they have been transporting through their jurisdictions.
In December, the Canadian government said it was also considering classifying crude oil as a higher-risk, dangerous product requiring emergency response plans for shipment by rail.
The derailment was caused by an “undesired brake application” - a term used to describe the application of emergency brakes in response to a problem, said John Cottreau, another spokesman for the TSB.
“As soon as the connection between two cars is separated, is broken, trains go into emergency braking,” he said, adding the agency didn’t yet know why it happened in this case. It was not clear whether the cars were full at the time of the crash, Cottreau said.
One car toward the front of the train derailed and was found to have a broken axle, said the TSB’s Holbrook, while the remaining 16 cars came off the rails toward the rear.
Asked whether the axle failure could have been the cause of the derailment or whether it happened as a result of the derailment, Holbrook told Reuters he did not want to speculate.
CN shares finished 1.6 percent lower to close at C$58.63 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
While railway stocks will occasionally be hurt by headlines about accidents, and investors should pay attention to any financial impact from future regulatory changes, the long-term outlook for rail shares remains solid, said Citigroup Global Markets transportation analyst Christian Wetherbee.
New Brunswick issued an air quality advisory east of the derailment and asked residents to take precautions. Officials said the impact of the derailment and fire on the environment appeared to be minimal.
CN said the train originated from Toronto and was headed to Moncton, New Brunswick, about 300 km (185 miles) east of the site of the accident. The cars were headed to a number of destinations in Atlantic Canada.
With additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary, Allison Martell and Susan Taylor in Toronto, David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Rosalind Russell and Bernard Orr