Firefighters block the highway near Gainford, Alta. as emergency crews battle a fire at the scene where 13 rail cars came off the tracks in an early-morning derailment. Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters
CN Rail is defending its safety record after three high-profile derailments involving trains carrying hazardous materials within the space of a month while apologizing for the latest mishap.
Thirteen cars on a CN freight train carrying a cargo of oil and liquefied petroleum gas went off the rails near the tiny hamlet of Gainford, about 80 kilometres west of Edmonton, early Saturday morning.
There were two explosions reported and the community was evacuated as a precaution.
The situation was so volatile that firefighters simply backed off and let the fire burn itself out. They estimated it could take at least 24 hours for that to happen and told a news conference late Saturday that it could be up to 72 hours before residents could return to their homes
Fire officials say they have little choice but to let the fuel burn itself off.
“As long as we have the fire burning the gas that is being expelled from the pressure vessels, we know where that gas is — and it’s safer just to let it flare until the product is consumed,” said Parkland County Fire Chief Jim Phalen.
Saturday's mishap occurred two days after residents in the Alberta community of Sexsmith were forced from their homes when four CN rail cars carrying anhydrous ammonia left the rails. That followed the derailment of 17 CN rail cars, some carrying petroleum, ethanol and chemicals, in western Saskatchewan on Sept. 25.
There were no injuries in any of the derailments.
Despite the cluster of derailments, a CN spokesman said rail remains a safe way to transport materials.
"CN's safety record has been very solid, in terms of its main track derailments last year, they were the lowest on record," said company spokesman Mark Hallman.
"The vast majority of commodities, such as dangerous commodities, that are transported from origin to destination, more than 99 per cent reach destination without any accidental release."
Chow calls for more inspections
Federal New Democrat MP Olivia Chow took issue with that assessment. She called on the federal government to take stronger action to improve rail safety.
"The latest train derailment, fire and evacuation tell the Conservative government that vague promise without a clear work plan is not enough," Chow said in an email.
She said inspections need to be increased and automatic braking systems need to be mandated. Municipalities also need to be given better information about what dangerous goods are being transported on trains.
Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's office issued a statement saying the federal government has invested over $100 million in rail safety and brought in tougher fines for companies that violate safety regulations.
Three of the rail cars on the train that derailed Saturday caught fire. They were carrying liquefied petroleum gas. Four freight cars carrying crude didn't break open, Hallman said.
CN said the train was travelling to Vancouver from Edmonton.
Derailment affects major highway, Via rail route
Travel on the Yellowhead Highway — the main east-west corridor in northern Alberta — was restricted.
Traffic along Highway 16, a major route connecting Edmonton and Jasper, has been rerouted north along Secondary Highway 765, westbound along Secondary Highway 633 and returning southbound on Secondary Highway 757. It is unknown when the highway will re-open, but will likely not be until Monday. Paquin said it is still unknown when the tracks, which also run a VIA rail service, will reopen.
Parkland County Mayor Rodney Shaigec told CBC News Network he hoped to be able to tell residents when they can return by the time a news conference is held at 11 a.m. MT.
"Some of the residents in that area do have livestock and animals which they haven't been able to attend to so it's quite disruptive, and there are also businesses in the area that of course aren't able to operate," he said.
Nearby resident Elaine Hughes told CBC’s Laura Osman she woke to her entire trailer shaking and looked out her window to see the entire sky lit up by the flames. After witnessing a fireball burst in the sky, however, she said the explosion quickly died down and she returned to bed.
It wasn’t until 9 a.m. local time that officials arrived to tell her to leave her home.
Others, like Denise Anderson, said they received notice to leave closer to 3 a.m.
“Two fire and rescue guys came and banged on the door and [they] tell me I had to evacuate because there was a train derailment,” she said. “They told me to get dressed and I had to go.”
Many residents CBC spoke to said they were worried about pets and other animals left behind.
As of Saturday evening, most residents said they were told they would not be able to return home until at least Monday.
No injuries are reported and all CN employees have been accounted for.
The Transportation Safety Board was sending investigators to the scene to determine the cause of the derailment.
In a statement, CN said the track was tested last week as well as last month and no issues were found. It also said an inspection of the train when it left Edmonton on Friday found no problems.
CN was clearly sensitive to the public relations fallout from the derailment. The company brought in some of its top brass to manage the situation, including Chief Operating Officer Jim Vena.
He apologized to the residents of Gainford for the disruption and promised the company would get to the bottom of what happened to prevent it from happening again.
"We run a safe railroad, but we do have incidents," Vena said.
The recent derailments come as documents obtained by Greenpeace suggest CN is considering shipping Alberta bitumen to Prince Rupert, B.C., in quantities matching the controversial North Gateway pipeline.
A departmental briefing note obtained under access to information laws said CN was reportedly working with Chinese-owned oil giant Nexen to examine transporting crude by rail to be loaded onto tankers for export to Asia.
CN denied it made a specific proposal for Prince Rupert, but said it will consider any such project as it comes up.
The Northern Gateway project has faced intense scrutiny and criticism and it was unclear whether the project would get the necessary approval.
There has also been intense scrutiny over shipping oil by rail following July's horrific derailment of a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train in Lac-Mégantic, Que. The subsequent fire claimed 47 lives.