Canadian National spokesman Louis-Antoine Paquin said 13 cars — four carrying petroleum crude oil and nine loaded with liquified petroleum gas — came off the tracks around 1 a.m. local time in the hamlet of Gainford, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Edmonton. The entire community of roughly 100 people was evacuated.
Paquin says three cars containing gas were leaking and on fire. Local officials feared there could be an explosion and declared a state of emergency.
"It's still a risky situation so we need to contain as much as possible and keep people far away," said Carson Mills, spokesman for Parkland County, which includes Gainford.
A local resident described hearing a series of crashes moments before a huge fireball shot into the sky.
"The fireball was so big, it shot across both lanes of the Yellowhead (Highway) and now both lanes of the Yellowhead are closed and there's fire on both sides," said the eyewitness identified only as Duane.
The train was travelling from Edmonton to Vancouver, British Columbia, Paquin said.
The Transportation Safety Board said it is sending investigators to the scene.
Questions about the increasing transport of oil by rail in the U.S. and Canada were raised in July after an unattended train with 72 tankers of oil rolled into the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic near the Maine border, derailing and triggering explosions that killed 47 people. The town's center was destroyed. The rail company's chairman blamed the train's operator for failing to set enough hand brakes.
Much of that increase is from oil produced in the Bakken region, a rock formation underlying portions of Montana and North Dakota in the U.S., and Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada.
The train that crashed in the small Quebec town was carrying oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick, Canada.
The train, using DOT-111 railcars, was operated by a U.S. company, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
In the first half of this year, U.S. railroads moved 178,000 carloads of crude oil. That's double the number during the same period last year and 33 times more than during the same period in 2009. The Railway Association of Canada estimates that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada's tracks this year, up from 500 carloads in 2009.
Following the fatal Quebec derailment, Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has said the U.S. agency expects to publish draft regulations requiring that DOT-111 railcars be retrofitted to address safety concerns. The agency's proposal is intended to fix a dangerous design flaw in the rail cars, which are used to haul oil and other hazardous liquids throughout North America.
Canadian officials had said the oil carried by that freight train had been misclassified as a less dangerous type of crude and they urged U.S. and Canadian regulators to ensure dangerous goods are accurately labeled.
Another key issue is whether railroads should be required to employ a minimum of two workers per train. The train that exploded in Quebec had only one engineer, who wasn't with the train at the time of the accident.
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