CN blamed for fatal train derailment in Illinois

CN is being blamed for a 2009 train derailment in Illinois, in which several cars went off the tracks and caught fire, killing one person and injuring seven others.

Accident in Cherry Valley in 2009 killed 1 person, injured 7

Rail cars loaded with thousands of gallons of highly flammable ethanol are seen engulfed in flames from a Canadian National Railway freight train that derailed in Cherry Valley, Ill. on June 19, 2009. (Scott Morgan/Rockford Register Star/Associated Press)

The Canadian National Railway is being blamed for a train derailment in Illinois, in which several cars went off the tracks and caught fire, killing one person and injuring seven others.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that the 2009 accident in Cherry Valley, Ill., was caused by a track washout, and CN did not warn the crew quickly enough to avert the disaster.

The washout was discovered about an hour before the train arrived, but the transportation company's inadequate emergency communications procedures delayed the message, the board said.

"There were missteps and miscommunications, procedures not followed and poor decisions," NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement Tuesday. "There were multiple points where this catastrophe could have been averted, but it was not."

Patrick Waldron, a Chicago-based CN spokesman, said the company has taken steps to improve its communication procedures since the derailment.

"This incident was a terrible tragedy, and as, outlined in the NTSB report, it was the result of a number of factors that ultimately led to the derailment … CN has taken a number of steps to improve its emergency communication and timely response to situations that pose a threat to the safety of train operations, with the goal of preventing this type of incident from happening again," Waldron told CBC News on Tuesday.

Flames spread to nearby stopped vehicles

On June 19, 2009, at about 8:36 p.m., a CN freight train travelling at roughly 58 km/h when it was derailed at a highway/rail grade crossing in Cherry Valley, a suburb of Rockford in northeast Illinois, according to the NTSB report.

Nineteen cars were derailed, all of which were carrying ethanol, a flammable liquid, according to the NTSB. Thirteen of the derailed tank cars were breached, or leaked their contents and caught fire.

The fire spread to several motor vehicles which were stopped at either side of the crossing, waiting for the train to pass.

A passenger in one of the stopped vehicles was injured in the fire and died.

Two passengers in the same car were seriously injured and five occupants of other cars at the crossing were also hurt.

According to the Rockford Register Star newspaper, the family of Zoila Tellez, who died in the accident, settled a lawsuit with CN for $36.2 million in October. Tellez's husband, Jose, received $22.5 million, and her then 19-year-old daughter, Adriana, who was four weeks pregnant at the time of the derailment, received $13.7 million, the newspaper reported.

The Tellez family had been stopped at the crossing at the time of the derailment. Zoila Tellez died at the scene, and Adriana Tellez suffered second- and third-degree burns and lost her baby as a result of the fire, according to the Rockford paper.

Recommended changes

Following the derailment, CN changed procedures at its dispatch centre to improve weather warnings and emergency calls, Waldron said. Weather warnings, such as flash flood bulletins, have been automated, and dispatchers are required to pass that information on to the relevant train crews and order the train to stop if needed, he added.

In its report Tuesday, the NTSB issued a series of recommended changes for CN and other organizations including the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

The safety issues the recommendations addressed included internal emergency communications, weather-alert policies and rules, and construction standards for underground pipelines at railroad crossings.

Among the NTSB recommendations for CN, the board suggested the company implement a program to regularly test its communication systems and make sure all staff are familiar with how they work. The board also recommended CN make sure that emergency contact information at all of its highway-rail crossings is visible and accurate.

Waldron said CN received the report Tuesday and will thoroughly examine the board's recommendations.