By Louise Egan
Oct 21 (Reuters) - Burning rail cars from a derailed Canadian train are taking longer to burn out than Canadian National Railway (CN) expected, closing the operator's main line to the Pacific coast and keeping 100 people from their homes.
The derailment in the province of Alberta, a reminder of a deadly accident in Quebec in July that killed 47 people, happened early on Saturday morning near the little settlement of Gainford, which was evacuated.
No one was hurt, but 13 of the mixed freight train's 134 cars derailed. One car containing highly flammable liquefied petroleum gas, also known as propane, exploded and three other burst into flames. Unlike the disaster in the town of Lac-Magentic, Quebec, the latest accident took place in open country.
CN punctured holes in the remaining cars containing propane to speed up the burning process and had expected the gas to be burned off by Monday morning, allowing residents who had been evacuated to return home. But by late Sunday the cars still contained some propane and the railway called off the operation, Warren Chandler, its senior manager of public and government affairs said.
"After the controlled burn last night, we have left the cars to vent overnight and are now assessing the next steps," he told a news conference.
The accident has brought rail safety and fuel transportation regulations back to the top of Canada's agenda, especially as it comes so soon after the Lac-Megantic disaster, in which a runaway crude oil train derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec lakeside town.
Canadian energy producers are increasingly relying on rail to transport crude oil and other energy products due to pipeline bottlenecks.
Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver said provincial and federal authorities needed to work together to minimize the risk of more accidents resulting from the crude-by-rail boom.
"We do not think safety has been overlooked, but there's a certain element of mathematics that is undeniable. The more goods and services you move down the track, the more important it becomes to double check safety because the simple law of averages starts to work against you," McIver said.
CN said the derailment could cause delays of 48 hours for customers seeking to ship goods between Vancouver and Edmonton, although "a portion" of shipments were being detoured.
The accident came at a time when Western Canadian grain handlers, such as Richardson International Limited, Viterra and Cargill Ltd, are already struggling to move a record breaking harvest from country elevators to ports, including two in British Columbia.
"On a line as substantial as that, (the derailment) is going to affect grain movement in some way," said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.
The rail cars that caught fire in the Alberta accident were not the same type as those that exploded in Lac-Megantic, which has been identified as needing reinforcement to help prevent leaks.
Canada's Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, said the tanker cars were the DOT-112J model rather than the DOT-111 type that exploded in Lac-Megantic.
Chandler could not say how the site would be made safe, or how long this might take.
One equity analyst following CN said the line closure would have a limited impact on the company's financial results and that the railway may be able to make up the lost traffic once the line re-opens.
"At the end of the day, I don't think anybody's going to care, because accidents happen in the railroad business from time to time and stoppages are going to happen from time to time. It doesn't give you any real indication of the sustained performance, and that's what investors are buying," said Canaccord Genuity analyst David Tyerman.