Investigators stumped on Quebec train explosion

As rescue workers continued to search for bodies after an oil-carrying train blew up in a small lakeside town in Quebec, investigators remain uncertain as to how the train rolled away on its own before coming off the rails and exploding.


Three days after a runaway oil train crashed into a small lakeside town in Quebec, Canada, investigators on Tuesday were yet to establish the precise cause of the tragedy.

So far, 13 people have been confirmed dead and around 40 others remain missing. Gas leaks and debris have hampered rescue workers in their search for bodies after a catastrophe that incinerated some 30 homes, a library and packed bar at Lac-Megantic.

Investigators are looking into a fire on the train hours earlier, although they could not link it directly to the explosion which occurred after the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose early on Saturday.

The train sped downhill for some l1km before jumping the tracks at 101kmh in Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, investigators said. All but one of the 73 cars were carrying oil. At least five exploded.

When the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway 5MMA) train caught fire before the derailment, the locomotive was shut down and the fire extinguished, according to Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert.

Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc, suggested that shutting off the locomotive to put out the fire may have disabled the brakes.

“An hour or so after the locomotive was shut down, the train rolled away,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Safety record in question

Transportation Safety Board investigator Donald Ross said the locomotive’s black box had now been recovered.

“The extent to which (the fire) played into the sequences of events is a focal point of our investigation,” Ross said, but he cautioned that the investigation was still in its early stages.

The accident has also thrown a spotlight on MMA’s safety record.

Before the Lac-Megantic accident, the company had 34 derailments since 2003, with five of them resulting in damage of more than $100,000, according to the US Federal Railroad Administration.

Burkhardt, however, said the figures were misleading.

“They’re not apples-to-apples figures. This is the only significant mainline derailment this company has had in the last 10 years. We’ve had, like most railroads, a number of smallish incidents, usually involving accidents in yard trackage and industry trackage,” he told CBC in a TV interview.

Ross told the AP news agency that the tanker cars involved in the crash were the DOT-111 model. The DOT-111 is a staple of the American freight rail fleet whose flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study.

Among other things, experts say its steel shell is so thin that it is prone to puncture in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that can catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.

The derailment also raised questions about the safety of Canada’s growing practice of transporting oil by train, and is sure to bolster arguments in favour of a proposed oil pipeline running from Canada across the US - a project that Canadian officials badly want.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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