The CN Rail derailment that is behind a massive fire near Plaster Rock, N.B., appears to be linked to a mechanical failure affecting the brakes, says an official with the Transportation Safety Board.

Dan Holbrook told CBC's Maritime Noon that the train experienced an "undesired brake application" Tuesday night as a result of a break in the continuous airline through the train coming apart, causing the brakes to go into emergency mode.

"Trains have a continuous pipe running throughout the train that supplies air to the brake system on every car," said Holbrook.

"If that brake pipe comes apart, that causes the brakes throughout the train to go into emergency … and that means the train will stop as fast as it can."

However, officials caution it is too soon to determine the exact cause of the derailment of the train, which was hauling crude oil and propane in northwestern New Brunswick.

The TSB plans to meet in Plaster Rock on Thursday to discuss the investigation, which it says will look into whether mechanical failure was a factor in the derailment. The safety board said it will be looking at many factors to determine the cause.

The train was headed east from Toronto to Moncton, N.B. The crude and propane were destined for the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday that the rate of rail accidents in the country is "extremely low," the lowest in history.

But something went wrong in this case and the Transportation Safety Board will look into it, Harper said during a ceremony in Inuvik to mark the beginning of construction of a new highway to Tuktoyaktuk.

"They do a thorough investigation and provide any recommendations that need … that flow from that experience and the government does act on those things," he said.

"We have made significant investments in rail safety and in rail inspections since coming to office. We’ve increased those vastly and of course we will take whatever further steps are necessary."

Fire rages on

Fire caused by the derailment that occurred in Wapske at about 7 p.m. AT Tuesday was still "burning bright" into Wednesday evening, said CBC's Shane Fowler.

It was visible in a photo taken with a cellphone from more than five kilometres away, he tweeted at about 6 p.m. AT.

"That fire is still going strong to show up under these conditions."

"We haven't went right into it yet because we had to determine what was in those cars first," Plaster Rock fire Chief Tim Corbin told CBC News.

Cleanup crews are letting the fire burn itself out before moving in because there is still a risk something could explode, said Fowler.

There are no homes or buildings in the immediate area of the derailment, located near Longley Road, where lumber cars are loaded, but about 50 homes in the vicinity have been evacuated, officials said.

About 150 people are affected in a two-kilometre radius of the derailment scene.

Air and ground assessments of the area are expected to continue on Thursday, said Fowler.

CN Rail president and CEO Claude Mongeau told a news conference in Plaster Rock Wednesday morning that 17 of the 122 cars on the trail derailed.

Five of the derailed cars were carrying crude oil and four contained propane, he said.

Each tank car can carry between 550 and 650 barrels of oil, according to the Rail Association of Canada.

train derailment

A train that caught fire in Wapske, N.B., was carrying propane and crude oil at the time of the derailment. (Google)

"My first words would be to apologize to the citizens of Plaster Rock for the inconvenience," said Mongeau.

"The fire is our first priority at the moment. Dealing with it, we have the equipment, we have the people and we have all of the procedures in place to deal with it in a safe manner."

Michael Farkouh, CN's vice-president of safety and sustainability, said an initial assessment of the scene once daylight came Wednesday showed flames coming off a few of the derailed cars.

"However, we see they are fairly stable, the cars, in terms of how they are burning," said Farkouh.

"At this point in time, to speculate in terms of the duration and so forth, we'd like to complete our assessment and get a better idea exactly what we have in front of us and we're in the process of doing that as we speak."

Mongeau said a full investigation will take place and steps taken to minimize the risk of similar incidents in the future.

Premier David Alward was also at the news conference and expressed thanks there were no injuries and said it appears there is minimal impact on the environment.

"Every day we have the movement of goods and services across our country by many different modes of transportation," said Alward. "Every mode of transportation is not without risk.

"What is important to realize is how we are able to respond to situations when they happen really determines how we are able to manage as we go forward."

Some cars were carrying butane, but they were not among those that derailed, said Jim Feeny of CN Rail.

Hazardous material responders from Toronto, Moncton and Montreal were sent to the scene.

Feeny said not all the cars may have necessarily originated in Toronto. Once the train arrived in Moncton, the goods being hauled would have been dispersed throughout Atlantic Canada, he said.

Rail transportation of dangerous goods rising

Wayne Benedict, a Calgary lawyer and former locomotive engineer and conductor, worked for railways for 15 years. 

In an interview with CBC Radio, Benedict said there have always been derailments but said there have been increases in the amount of dangerous goods being transported by rail.

"I think that the public is taking more notice of the derailments because of the increased occurrences of dangerous commodities being involved — oil specifically and liquefied petroleum gas in the derailment that happened in northern Alberta and I think there’s a couple of propane cars as well as oil involved in the one back east today. So, you know, when you have massive explosions and balls of orange flame flying across highways where the public is ... the media will take notice," he said.

Benedict said there are regulatory problems with the railway in Canada. 

"Personally I think there’s an underlying problem with the entire railway regulatory regime and then it’s exacerbated by the fact that there's increased transportation of dangerous commodities," he said.

He said railways are in the business of moving freight as quickly as possible from one place to another. 

"Those kinds of primary objectives, in my mind, are in direct conflict with safety because safety costs money," said Benedict.

In terms of whether he believes the Lac-Mégantic disaster and this latest derailment in Wapske will result in regulatory change, Benedict said, "I'm not going to hold my breath — not with this present government that's in power anyway."

54 derailments in N.B. since 2003

train derailment

Emergency crews have blocked off roads leading to the scene of a train derailment in northwestern New Brunswick. (wagmtv.com)

Fifty-four trains carrying dangerous goods have derailed across New Brunswick over the past decade, CBC News has learned.

The 2003-2012 figures come from a Transportation Safety Board database of reported rail occurrences obtained by CBC News as part of an ongoing investigation into rail safety.

Nearly a quarter of those reported derailments involving dangerous goods cars — 13 in total — happened in what’s known as the Napadogan subdivision, an area that includes the tracks where yesterday’s derailment took place. However, the subdivision hasn’t had a dangerous goods car derailment for the past five years, since 2007.

Across New Brunswick and on the Napadogan subdivision train lines, there’s been a decrease in the number of derailments and occurrences in general over the past decade.

At least two other derailments have happened near Plaster Rock, one in 2004 and another in 2005. Both involved CN Rail cars carrying dangerous goods. One involved petroleum gases, while in the other case the product type is not stated.

Air, water quality alerts issued

The derailment and subsequent fire prompted the provincial Health Department to issue an air quality alert for the Plaster Rock area and an advisory about water use.

Those who live in the evacuation zone were advised not to consume water until quality is assured.

Individuals on the village water system in Plaster Rock should not be concerned, said the health department.

The regional medical officer of health for the area said residents should take precautions when heavy smoke affects air quality.

"Infants, children, pregnant women, older adults, smokers and people with chronic heart or lung diseases should stay indoors to reduce their exposure to the outdoor air," said Dr. Yves ​Léger.

Anyone experiencing difficulty breathing or chest discomfort is advised to contact a physician.

Léger also recommended that anyone who can taste or smell smoke in the air follow these guidelines:

  • Reduce levels of physical activity as necessary.
  • Consider sheltering indoors with windows closed.
  • Turn air exchangers off so as to avoid bringing outside air into the home. 
  • Remember that dust masks, bandanas or other clothes (even if wet) do not offer protection from smoke.

Smoke from the fire was drifting east to a largely uninhabited area.

A spokesperson for federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt declined an interview request.

"We thank the first responders for their quick action," said Ashley Kelahear in an emailed statement.

 "Transport Canada is monitoring the situation and is in close contact with local officials.  

"The proper authorities will determine the cause of the incident."

The Red Cross established a shelter for evacuees in Plaster Rock, though it was not utilized by anyone overnight.