By Nia Williams
CALGARY (Reuters) - A train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and caught fire in Western Canada on Saturday, in an accident that brought back memories of a deadly crash in Quebec this summer.
But Saturday's accident, in open country just outside the tiny settlement of Gainford, Alberta, caused no injuries, and emergency services said they were opting to let the fire burn itself out rather than approach the blaze.
The 134-car mixed freight train was operated by Canadian National Railway, Canada's largest railroad, and was heading from Alberta's capital, Edmonton, to Vancouver, on the Pacific Coast.
CN Chief Operating Officer Jim Vena said 13 cars had derailed, and three, all carrying flammable liquid petroleum gas, caught fire. The derailed cars that carried crude oil had not leaked or caught fire, he said.
"CN will clean this up, remediate any damage," Vena told an evening news conference, noting that both the track and the train had been inspected in the last few days. It was too early to say what caused the accident, he said.
Rail safety has become a central issue in Canada since the July disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded in giant fireballs in the center of the lakeside town, killing 47 people.
A key focus in the rail safety debate is the booming volumes of crude oil shipments by rail as pipelines fill to capacity and producers seek other ways to get their oil to refineries.
Weekly figures from the Association of American Railroads, which do not distinguish between shipments of refined fuel and crude oil, showed 6,937 rail cars were loaded with petroleum and petroleum products in Canada in the week ended October 12, up 13 percent from the same week in 2012. That is roughly equivalent to 594,600 barrels per day.
The growth shows no sign of slowing, with around 550,000 barrels per day of dedicated crude-by-rail terminals due to be operational in Western Canada by the end of 2014.
But in contrast to Lac-Megantic, where the explosions razed dozens of buildings in the center of town, pictures from near Gainford showed Saturday's fire was burning alongside a road in open country, with fields and forests on either side.
Gainford residents were asked to leave their homes because of the risk of another explosion, and Canada's Transportation Safety Board said the evacuation would continue for as long as needed - maybe 24, 48 or 72 hours. The main east-west highway traversing central Alberta was closed.
Gainford, some 80 km (50 miles) from Edmonton, has a population of just over 100 people.
Saturday's derailment came days after a CN train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed in Sexsmith, Alberta. A CN freight train derailed near the town of Landis, in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, on September 25, sending 17 cars off the track, one of which leaked lubrication oil.
But Vena said that even with the latest derailment, CN's safety record was running at the same rate as last year, which was the company's safest year on record.
"We have come a long way to improve safety, and we are going further," he said, promising to work closely with the local authorities and with the TSB, which has sent a team of investigators to the crash site.
On Thursday, the Canadian government imposed new regulations requiring tests to be conducted on crude oil before it is transported or imported into Canada. In the Lac-Megantic crash, inspectors determined that the oil the train carried was more explosive than labeled.
Critics say the rush to use rail to transport crude and sidestep pipeline bottlenecks means safety is being overlooked, raising the risk of more derailments.
"This is becoming the new normal as we have movements of crude-by-rail skyrocketing at a time when the safety standards have not kept up," said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator at environmental activist group Greenpeace.
"We have train cars which were never designed for dealing with these kind of hazardous and explosive products," he said.
Past concern has centered on the older DOT111 tanker cars such as the ones involved in the Lac-Megantic crash, which lack twin hulls or extra strengthening.
(Additional reporting by Janet Guttsman and Solarina Ho in Toronto; Editing by Eric Beech, Doina Chiacu and Eric Walsh)