CN Railway faces 3 lawsuits after fires near tracks in 2016

CN Railway is facing three separate lawsuits in Manitoba — including a $3.8 million suit from the province itself — alleging its operations caused fires in spring 2016, as the rail company investigates a series of fires that started along its tracks in Winnipeg this weekend.

CN investigation into fires did not determine they were caused by railway operations

Crews were on scene at a brush fire on Wilkes Avenue on Sunday. (Travis Golby/CBC)

CN Railway is facing three separate lawsuits in Manitoba — including a $3.8-million suit from the province itself — alleging its operations caused fires in spring 2016, as the rail company investigates a series of fires that started along its tracks in Winnipeg this weekend.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The lawsuits stem from a pair of fires, one in Headingley, Man., on April 30, and the other near Caddy Lake, on May 3, 2016.

A property owner and a company in Headingley are suing CN for up to $100,000 in damages each, alleging the rail line was negligent in its operations and caused the fire.

The Province of Manitoba is also suing the rail line for more than $3.8 million, the amount it says it spent to put out the fire near the border, which it alleges CN caused.

CN Railway declined to comment on the lawsuits themselves as they remain before the courts.

But a spokesperson said the rail company's investigation into the fires did not determine they were caused by the railway.

"As to the fires themselves, CN's investigation into the April 30, 2016 fire in Headingley determined that it was not started by railway operations," spokesperson Kate Fenske wrote in an email.

"A similar investigation has not found evidence that railway operations started the May 5, 2016 fire near the provincial border."

City investigates if train caused Sunday fires

The lawsuits come as southern Manitoba endures a long dry spell, leading to grass and brush fires across the province and in Winnipeg.

A series of fires in the city on Sunday — including a particularly large one on Wilkes Avenue along a railroad track — prompted a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service to suggest the fires could have been started by a train passing through.

A massive fire was sparked Sunday near the Wilkes Avenue tracks. (Travis Golby/CBC)

On Monday, a spokesperson for CN told CBC News the company knows trains have sparked fires in the past, and the company inspects equipment and reviews train movement each time.

So far, the company hasn't identified any "specific mechanical issues that would have sparked a fire," in this case, she said.

Trains have all kinds of mechanisms that can spark accidental fires, says University of Manitoba transportation engineering professor Ahmed Shalaby. The most common causes are super-heated brakes or locked wheels, which drag on the tracks and cause sparks.

The risk of fires is increased with hot, dry conditions, Shalaby added, and when there's a buildup of dry materials on the side of the tracks to fuel the flames.

"Together with the source of spark from a train, that can be the perfect recipe to ignite a brush fire," he said.

Province sues for $3.8M

In a statement of claim filed to the Court of Queen's Bench on April 27, plaintiff Echo Tree Service alleges the railway company was negligent in caring for its trains. The document claims that negligence caused a fire along rail tracks at 8971 Wilkes Avenue in Headingley, Man., on April 30, 2016.

Echo's lawyer, Paul Kathler, told CBC News an independent investigation — not the CN investigation — done in the hours after the fire found axle grease from a railcar or locomotive near the spot the fire started.

"His report concluded that the fire was the result of heated axle grease igniting dry grass and plant material along the rail line, with strong winds carrying the fire towards our client's property and causing significant property losses," Kathler wrote in an email.

The statement of claim says the fire caused "extensive damage" to Echo's vehicles, equipment and materials on Echo's property near the tracks.

The rail company is also facing similar allegations in a second suit stemming from that fire, also filed on April 27.

A statement of claim on behalf of Roy Johnston, who owned a shipping container along the tracks, says Johnston's container and its contents were badly damaged by the blaze.

In the province's statement of claim, filed to the Court of Queen's Bench on May 3, Manitoba Justice alleges a wildland fire in May 2016 was caused by CN.

The fire started on May 5, within 100 metres of the centre line of the track, about two kilometres away from the Manitoba-Ontario border, the province says. It's suing CN for the $3.8 million it spent to get the fire under control.

A spokesperson for the province told CBC News it would not be appropriate to comment on the case as it remains before the courts.

Track maintenance railways' responsibility

Canadian railways are responsible for maintaining the areas around their tracks, but Transport Canada doesn't have strict guidelines for those practices, said Mark Winfield, a professor at York University.

Winfield has written extensively on rail safety following the Lac-Mégantic disaster, when a runaway fuel train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in 2013, causing an explosion that killed 47 people.

The disaster raised concerns about whether Transport Canada should take on more direct oversight of railway safety plans in general, Winfield said.

"At the moment, a lot of this is effectively delegated to the railways, and really all Transport Canada is overseeing is the plan that the railways develop," he said.

Winfield said lawsuits against railways for damages caused by trains are unusual, but people who lost property have limited options for recourse if they want it. Environmental legislation may allow provinces to impose remediation orders, but the process moves slowly.

"Sometimes this is what people end up having to resort to," he said.

A police officer walks the railway tracks along the area where a grass fire burned near Dugald Road and Bournais Drive on Sunday. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

CN's Fenske said the rail company has already issued a bulletin to operating crews reminding them of proper procedures for fire mitigation during dry conditions.

The railway's mechanical crews regularly inspect locomotives and equipment to reduce risk of sparks, she said, and the railway conducts brush-cutting along the tracks.

"Work crews also have fire suppression equipment available in their work vehicles. Engineering crews working on the track monitor weather temperature conditions, particularly during spring and summer months before conducting rail work," she said.

"Crews carrying out work are also asked to exercise caution when working in windy conditions."

Winfield said inherent risks of rail transport mean there's a need for strong regulatory oversight.

"Especially in conditions where you've got very, very dry conditions and you've got high risk for problems, that can translate into bigger problems," he said.

"Part of what you want to be doing is making sure that if there are potential sources of ignition in those conditions, that you're making sure you're doing something to minimize the risk."