CN Rail says it will plead guilty to charges under the Forest and Prairie Protection Act in connection with one of the most expensive fires in the province's history, while another rail consortium goes on trial in the same case.

The charred remains of a tractor sit in burned rubble after the 2001 wildfire in Chisholm, Alberta. (CP photo)

RaiLink Canada, RaiLink Ltd. and RailAmerica Inc. are accused of running poorly maintained locomotives, which prosecutors say likely sparked the 2001 Chisolm fire, which burned 120,000 hectares of forest, destroyed 10 homes, and cost $30 million to battle.

CN faced the same allegation, but announced it planned to plead guilty in return for some of the charges being dropped.

"We will enter a guilty plea to an amended charge, related to being part of an activity that may or may not have caused the fire," CN spokesman Jim Feeny said. "I think it's important to make clear that we are not pleading guilty to causing the fire."

The maximum fine both CN and RaiLink, should it be found guilty, face is $5,000, which Liberal environment critic David Swann says sends the wrong message.

"This is time long overdue that the Alberta government hold these companies accountable and that they pay their fair share," Swann said, adding the maximum fines should be increased to $50,000.

He points out that billion-dollar corporations like CN Rail aren't going to spend money to prevent accidents when the penalty is a few thousand dollars should one occur.

Swann says spending up to 10 weeks in court fighting cases like the Chisolm fire – the RaiLink trial is expected to take that long – for a $5,000 fine doesn't make sense either. He believes if a company is convicted they should pick up the court costs.

Donna Babchishin, spokeswoman for Alberta Sustainable Resources, says the legislation is not being reviewed.

"I think Albertans would find that a reasonable range of fines for that range of activity that can happen in the forest," she said.

Last week, CN settled a civil claim relating to the Chisolm fire, agreeing to pay the government $10 million and spend another $8.6 million over the next 10 years on programs to reduce wildfires in the province.

The release from the province says the agreement settles a "disputed claim, and the agreement in not an admission of liability or responsibility by CN."