Canada’s Transportation Safety Board investigates crude train derailment

A photograph of fire burning next to some tank railcars. The photo was taken at night.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada is still investigating what caused the Dec. 9 derailment of a Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) unit train carrying crude oil. The accident, near Guernsey, Saskatchewan, resulted in 20 punctured tank cars that released crude oil and sparked a large fire that burned for 24 hours.

Six investigators have been deployed to the site, led by Rob Johnston, a CP veteran who has served in senior roles with the TSB since 2001.

Investigators are recovering mechanical and track components from the derailment, and the team plans to examine all 33 tank cars to evaluate tank performance. The TSB Engineering Laboratory will further analyze any components of interest.

A key question is how and why the tank cars punctured since the derailed tank cars consisted of newer and retrofitted tank car models designed to be harder to puncture. The tank cars are also the type that the U.S. and Canadian governments have required freight railroads to deploy following a spate of train accidents over the years, including the July 2013 fatal derailment of a crude oil train in Lac Mégantic, Quebec.

CP said it doesn’t own any of the tank cars involved in the accident. The railway also said the tank cars were jacketed CPC-1232 cars or retrofitted TC-117 cars, all of which met Transport Canada standards.

The accident occurred after the CP train initiated its emergency brakes, derailing a covered hopper car and 33 tank cars behind it. The derailed tank cars consisted of nine Class 117R and 24 CPC-1232 Class 111 tank cars. 

At the front end, 23 tank cars derailed, and about 19 tank cars lost their entire loads, releasing an estimated 1.5 million liters (396,298 gallos) of product into the ground or atmosphere, TSB said. An additional 10 cars at the train’s tail end sustained minimal damage but remained intact with no loss of product.

The accident occurred just after midnight Central Standard Time, when CP crude oil unit train 516-398 was eastbound on CP’s Sutherland subdivision. The train, which was following the speed limit of 45 mph, originated in Rosyth, Alberta, and was bound for Stroud, Oklahoma. Two qualified crew members, a locomotive engineer and conductor, were on board. The crew reported no injuries, and the temperature at the time of the accident was about −19°C (−2°F).

TSB will provide updates on the investigation on its website.

CP said its crews will remain on the scene for several weeks, and they are working to clean up and minimize the environmental impact. The railway reopened the rail line the morning of Dec. 10 once all track repairs and safety inspections were complete, and it worked with local firefighters to extinguish the fire.