PLASTER ROCK, N.B. – A preliminary investigation into a fiery train derailment in northwestern New Brunswick has found a cracked wheel and broken rail at the site but it’s too early to say what caused the train to leave the tracks, a senior investigator with the Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
Guy Laporte said he has had limited access to the scene of the wreckage because of a fire that has been burning since it derailed Tuesday night. The CN (TSX:CNR) freight train was carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas when it derailed in Wapske.
CN spokesman Jim Feeny said the company believes a wheel and axle failure was the cause of the derailment based on its preliminary investigation, but Laporte said it’s premature to determine that.
“It is too early to say what the cause is and contributing factors of this accident might be,” Laporte told a news conference Thursday in the village of Plaster Rock, near the derailment site.
“The axle is not broken itself. It’s not in two parts.”
Feeny said CN still believes that the cracked wheel triggered the derailment at this point in their investigation.
“Indications are that there was a sudden failure of a wheel on Car 13, which ultimately led to the chain of events that led to this derailment,” he said.
“Now, there are a number of factors that still have to be looked at as part of that. What exactly failed on the wheel? What are the causes of that failure?”
The company has said the crude oil on the train was on its way to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., from Western Canada.
Laporte said 19 cars and a locomotive from the 122-car train left the tracks — two more cars than CN previously said had derailed. Feeny said on closer examination, the company discovered the wheels on two more cars had left the tracks but the cars were still upright.
The Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that the train’s brakes came on unexpectedly, but Laporte said Thursday he was not able to verify whether the brake line was faulty. Feeny said the brakes worked as they were designed to because they are applied automatically when there is a problem with the train.
Feeny said three cars were still burning at the site, which includes spilled diesel fuel. He said it’s not known how long the fire will last and crews are working on a plan to extinguish the fire in the hopes of allowing the 150 people who had to be evacuated to return to their homes.
Aerial images of the derailment showed a jumble of cars strewn across the tracks in a wooded area. No one was injured.
CN president Claude Mongeau said the train was inspected in Montreal as per regulation before it left that city and it would have moved over a number of wayside detectors designed to identify potential problems, such as mechanical issues with wheels or dragging equipment.
Laporte said his investigative team will review data from those detectors and specifically look at whether there was a change in temperature of the axle and wheel.
“If the temperature was raising a lot, it means that, ‘Oh, we could have a problem,’ ” Laporte said.
Officials said they don’t know when the evacuees will be allowed to return to their homes, though some of them have been permitted to temporarily go to their residences.
Karen Green, 55, said she checked on her four cats and was hoping she would be allowed to return home by the weekend.
“I’d really like to be home in my own bed at night,” the school bus driver said.
The province’s Health Department said as a precaution, people in the area with private wells should not drink their water until after they have been tested.