An investigation into a fiery derailment in northern Ontario last week suggests new tank-car standards brought in after the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster still don't go far enough, Canada's transportation safety agency says.
The Canadian National Railway train that derailed near Timmins, Ont., on Feb. 15 was hauling crude oil and petroleum distillates in newer-model tank cars. A preliminary investigation by the Transportation Safety Board found at least 19 of the train's rail cars were breached, spilling more than one million litres of crude and petroleum distillate and causing a fire that lasted for six days.
The tank cars that caught fire were CPC-1232 models that were either built or upgraded after 2011, which means they would have steel cladding at the front and protection over the valves. The tank cars that derailed two years ago in Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people, were earlier models that lacked those added protections.
"The initial impression is that [the newer tank cars] are probably not good enough and more needs to be done to find a better class of tank cars to transport these types of products in," said Rob Johnston, the safety board's manager for the central regional operations.
One day after the Ontario derailment, a CSX Corp. train hauling oil from North Dakota crashed and exploded in West Virginia, causing the evacuation of two small towns. CSX has confirmed that train was also using newer-model CPC-1232 rail cars.
The accidents are the latest in a string of explosive oil train derailments in North America that have prompted heightened concern about the safety of moving crude oil by rail. Regulators in Canada and the U.S. brought in new standards for tank cars carrying crude oil last year, but the recent fiery derailments raise questions about whether tougher standards are needed.
Mr. Johnston said the safety board has been in contact with the U.S. transportation safety agency to discuss the recent accidents in West Virginia and Ontario, adding that the issue should be addressed in both Canada and the U.S. "This is a North American problem, this is not just a Canadian problem," he said. "And if we're going to fix it, it needs to be fixed in North America."
A spokesman for Transport Canada said the department is working with the U.S. government on a "next-generation" tank car that would surpass the CPC-1232. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said last week that the new design could be announced in the spring.
"I think everybody recognizes that there is a need for improvement to be made here," Mr. Johnston said.
In addition to the tank cars, Canada's transportation safety board will also look at the impact of the cold weather at the time of the crash and the broken rail involved in the crash, he said, and will assess the emergency response to the accident.
There were no injuries in the Ontario derailment and fire, which is believed to be among the biggest in North America since the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic. The derailment, which occurred in a remote part of the province on CN's mainline, closed the railroad for the week, forcing Via Rail passengers onto buses between Toronto and Winnipeg.
Industry group the Railway Association of Canada and its U.S. counterpart have been pushing governments to adopt a tank-car standard that is tougher than the CPC-1232 version. The rail industry is seeking protection that extends to the top of the cars, an extra layer of steel over parts of the tanks, and resistance to high temperatures.
There are a handful of tank-car makers in North America, but the order backlog and long lead times make upgrading the rail-car fleet a slow process. Dallas-based tank-car maker Trinity Industries Inc. said last week the leasing companies and oil producers it sells to are holding off ordering new cars until the new standards are set by regulators.