The CN Rail derailment that was behind a massive fire near Plaster Rock, N.B., appears to be linked to a mechanical failure affecting the brakes, said an official with the Canadian Transportation Safety Board.
Dan Holbrook told CBC’s “Maritime Noon” that the train experienced an “undesired brake application” as a result of a break in the continuous airline through the train coming apart, causing the brakes to go into emergency mode.
“Trains have a continuous pipe running throughout the train that supplies air to the brake system on every car,” said Holbrook.
“If that brake pipe comes apart, that causes the brakes throughout the train to go into emergency … and that means the train will stop as fast as it can.”
However, officials caution it is too soon to determine the exact cause.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday that the rate of rail accidents in the country is the lowest in history. But something went wrong in this case and the Transportation Safety Board will look into it, Harper said.
Fire burned through the night and into Wednesday morning following the derailment of the train, which was hauling crude oil and propane in northwestern New Brunswick.
“We could see the fire from quite a distance, so we haven’t gone right into it yet because we had to determine what was in those cars first,” said Plaster Rock fire Chief Tim Corbin.
“We have determined that the cars that are affected in the derailment are crude oil and propane cars,” said Corbin.
CN Rail president and CEO Claude Mongeau told a news conference in Plaster Rock Wednesday morning that 17 of the 122 cars on the trail derailed.
Five of the derailed cars were carrying crude oil and four contained propane, he said.
“My first words would be to apologize to the citizens of Plaster Rock for the inconvenience,” said Mongeau.
“The fire is our first priority at the moment. Dealing with it, we have the equipment, we have the people and we have all of the procedures in place to deal with it in a safe manner.”
Michael Farkouh, CN’s vice president of safety and sustainability, said an initial assessment of the scene once daylight came Wednesday showed flames coming off a few of the derailed cars.
“However, we see they are fairly stable, the cars, in terms of how they are burning,” said Farkouh.
“At this point in time, to speculate in terms of the duration and so forth, we’d like to complete our assessment and get a better idea exactly what we have in front of us and we’re in the process of doing that as we speak.”
Mongeau said a full investigation will take place and steps taken to minimize the risk of similar incidents in the future.
New Brunswick Premier David Alward was also at the news conference and expressed thanks there were no injuries and said it appears there is minimal impact on the environment.
“Every day we have the movement of goods and services across our country by many different modes of transportation,” said Alward. “Every mode of transportation is not without risk.
“What is important to realize is how we are able to respond to situations when they happen really determines how we are able to manage as we go forward.”
The derailment happened around 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The train was headed east from Toronto to Moncton, N.B.
Corbin said there are no homes or buildings in the immediate area, but about 50 homes in the vicinity have been evacuated. About 150 people are affected in a 1.25-mile radius of the derailment scene.
Some cars were carrying butane, but they were not among those that derailed, said Jim Feeny of CN Rail.
Hazardous material responders from Toronto, Moncton and Montreal were sent to the scene.
Feeny said not all the cars may have necessarily originated in Toronto. Once the train arrived in Moncton, the goods being hauled would have been dispersed throughout Atlantic Canada, he said.
The crude and propane were destined for the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
The derailment happened in Wapske, in the area of the Longley Road where lumber cars are loaded.
People three miles away in Plaster Rock reported seeing flames.
54 derailments in N.B. since 2003
Fifty-four trains carrying dangerous goods have derailed across New Brunswick over the past decade, CBC News has learned.
The 2003-2012 figures come from a Transportation Safety Board database of reported rail occurrences obtained by CBC News as part of an ongoing investigation into rail safety.
Nearly a quarter of those reported derailments involving dangerous goods cars — 13 in total — happened in what’s known as the Napadogan subdivision, an area that includes the tracks where Tuesday’s derailment took place. However, the subdivision hasn’t had a dangerous goods car derailment for the past five years, since 2007.
Across New Brunswick and on the Napadogan subdivision train lines, there’s been a decrease in the number of derailments and occurrences in general over the past decade.
At least two other derailments have happened near Plaster Rock, one in 2004 and another in 2005. Both involved CN Rail cars carrying dangerous goods. One involved petroleum gases, while in the other case the product type is not stated.
Air, water quality alerts issued
The derailment and subsequent fire prompted the provincial Health Department to issue an air quality alert for the Plaster Rock area and an advisory about water use.
Those who live in the evacuation zone were advised not to consume water until quality is assured.
Individuals on the village water system in Plaster Rock should not be concerned, said the health department.
The regional medical officer of health for the area said residents should take precautions when heavy smoke affects air quality.
“Infants, children, pregnant women, older adults, smokers and people with chronic heart or lung diseases should stay indoors to reduce their exposure to the outdoor air,” said Dr. Yves Leger.
Anyone experiencing difficulty breathing or chest discomfort is advised to contact a physician.
Leger also recommended that anyone who can taste or smell smoke in the air follow these guidelines:
— Reduce levels of physical activity as necessary.
— Consider sheltering indoors with windows closed.
— Turn air exchangers off so as to avoid bringing outside air into the home.
— Remember that dust masks, bandanas or other clothes (even if wet) do not offer protection from smoke.
Smoke from the fire was drifting east to a largely uninhabited area.
A spokesperson for federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt declined an interview request.
“We thank the first responders for their quick action,” said Ashley Kelahear in an emailed statement.
“Transport Canada is monitoring the situation and is in close contact with local officials.
“The proper authorities will determine the cause of the incident.”
The Red Cross established a shelter for evacuees in Plaster Rock, though it was not used by anyone overnight.