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Firefighters look at a train wagon on fire at Lac-Mégantic, Que., July 6, 2013. Canadian police expect the death toll from a fatal fuel train blast in a small Quebec town to be more than the one person confirmed dead so far, a spokesman said on Saturday. The driverless train and 72 tankers of crude oil jumped the tracks in the small town of Lac-Mégantic early in the morning and exploded in a massive fireball.MATHIEU BELANGER/Reuters

The explosions in Quebec caused by a derailed train carrying oil will fuel the debate over whether pipelines are a more palatable way to move petroleum products compared to railways, which have been picking up business as pipeline projects face stiff opposition.

Energy companies have increasingly turned to railcars to move their products around North America, and nearly 10 per cent of the oil they produce in the United States will move by train in 2013. This is because projects like TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL line to the U.S. Gulf Coast have been stymied by delays.

Oil and gas outfits would prefer to ship products like oil and diluent by pipeline because it is cheaper but they have turned to rail as an alternative as crude production continues to grow. Pipeline proponents argue pipelines are the safest way to move hydrocarbons.

Trains have a death rate three times higher than pipelines and a fire or explosion rate nine times higher than pipelines when moving liquids, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration says pipelines have the best safety record when stacked up against competing modes of transportation.

In 2008, trains carried fewer than 20,000 barrels a day of oil in the United States. But by the end of last year, roughly 500,000 barrels of oil per day moved on the rails. Spills are a key concern.

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., for example, has had a string of recent spills.

Five tank cars carrying crude oil and operated by CP derailed near Jansen, Sask., in May. One car leaked about 575 barrels of oil.

Another CP freight train carrying oil derailed in April, in northwestern Ontario. Roughly 20 derailed and two of them contained crude. About 400 barrels of oil spilled, although CP's original estimate was four barrels of oil. The railway company had another spill in March, that time in Minnesota. Fourteen of the train's 94 car derailed, spilling about 1,000 gallons, or about 24 barrels, of oil.

Five people are dead in Lac-Mégantic, Que. after a runaway train owned by Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway derailed, causing an explosion that flattened buildings and a fire that is still burning. The crash site remains dangerous.

CP spokesman Ed Greenberg declined to comment on rails and pipelines after Saturday's explosion in Quebec. "As you can appreciate the incident in Quebec involves another railway, so, as a result, we have no comment," he said in an email Saturday evening.

A CP train carrying petroleum products derailed in Calgary at the end of June, after a bridge collapsed thanks to the massive floods that battered Alberta's largest city and damaged some of its infrastructure. The cars did not spill their contents.

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