Thunder Bay

Northwestern Ontario train derailment came days after feds raised rail speed limit

The train that derailed and spilled crude oil in northwestern Ontario last week was travelling at a speed that would have been prohibited just two days earlier.

The ministerial order restricting train speeds was revised on Feb. 16, two days before Emo incident

Kathy Mercier lives in the area near where a CN train carrying crude oil derailed outside Emo, Ont. She took this picture of heavy machinery heading to the site. (Submitted by Kathy Mercier)

The train that derailed and spilled crude oil in northwestern Ontario last week was travelling at a speed that would have been prohibited just two days earlier.

The CN Rail train was heading east at 70 kilometres per hour and had activated its emergency brake when it derailed near Emo, about 350 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, on the evening of Feb. 18, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

The incident comes just weeks after the second of two fiery derailments of oil-carrying Canadian Pacific Railway trains in Saskatchewan in two months that prompted the federal government to lower train speed limits across the country.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau had issued a ministerial order that took effect on Feb. 7, restricting trains carrying dangerous goods to a limit of 40 kilometres per hour outside of metropolitan areas.

Then on Feb. 16, the federal government announced it was revising that order, allowing trains to travel up to 80 kilometres per hour in non-metropolitan areas where there were signalized tracks. That updated order went into effect immediately.

Only two days later, the CN Rail train went off the tracks just south of Emo at the Highway 602 crossing. A total of 31 rail cars went off the tracks, 26 of which were tankers and five leaked crude oil, according to the safety board. There was no fire and nobody was injured.

A CN Rail train derailed near Emo, Ont. on Tuesday. (CBC News)

The train would have been considered a "key train," which is defined as trains carrying more than 20 cars containing dangerous goods. 

A Transport Canada spokesperson said information received from CN was being reviewed to determine whether the railway was in compliance with the ministerial order.

A statement from Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said the amount of spilled oil can't be determined until all of the train's tanker cars are unloaded. All of the spilled oil was contained to a nearby ditch and farm field, and none has entered any waterways. Material from the derailed tankers is being offloaded and taken to CN's yard in nearby Fort Frances, where it is being transferred to other cars.

Ministry staff are expected to return to the site later this week to assess cleanup and remediation efforts.

Six homes within 800 metres of the site were briefly evacuated within hours of the incident as a precautionary measure, but displaced residents were able to return home the next day.

Highway 602 remains closed in both directions south of Emo. The rail line was reopened on Feb. 21.

Fort Frances town council earlier this week passed a resolution, expressing concern about the number of derailment incidents in the Rainy River District and calling on provincial and federal officials to investigate the frequency of derailments in the 40-kilometre stretch from Fort Frances to Chapple.