Guy Laporte, a senior investigator with the federal Transportation Safety Board, said he has had limited access to the scene of the wreckage because of a fire that has been burning since the train derailed Tuesday night. The CN (TSX:CNR) freight train was carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas when it left the tracks in Wapske.
CN spokesman Jim Feeny said the company believes a wheel and axle failure was the cause of the derailment based on its preliminary investigation, but Laporte said it's premature to determine that.
"It is too early to say what the cause is and contributing factors of this accident might be," Laporte told a news conference Thursday in the village of Plaster Rock, near the derailment site.
"The axle is not broken itself. It's not in two parts."
Feeny said CN still believes that the cracked wheel triggered the derailment at this point in their investigation.
"Indications are that there was a sudden failure of a wheel on Car 13, which ultimately led to the chain of events that led to this derailment," he said.
"Now, there are a number of factors that still have to be looked at as part of that. What exactly failed on the wheel? What are the causes of that failure?"
Some residents have been allowed to temporarily return to their homes. Karen Green, 55, said she checked on her four cats and was hoping she would be allowed to return home by the weekend.
"I'd really like to be home in my own bed at night," the school bus driver said.
Officials from CN, the province's Environment Department and the Emergency Measures Organization met with residents affected by the evacuation late Thursday afternoon.
Ann Powers said people voiced common concerns at the meeting, asking questions about the environment and drinking water.
"When we can get into our homes and the water?" Power said following the meeting. "Is the environment and the ground going to be OK when we do get into our homes?"
The province's Health Department said as a precaution, people in the area with private wells should not drink their water until after they have been tested.
Feeny said CN will cover the costs of the cleanup and compensate those whose properties have been damaged and incurred expenses as a result of the evacuation.
Laporte said 19 cars and a locomotive from the 122-car train left the tracks — two more cars than CN previously said had derailed. Feeny said on closer examination, the company discovered the wheels on two more cars had left the tracks but the cars were still upright.
The crude oil on the train was on its way to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., from Western Canada, CN said.
The Transportation Safety Board said earlier this week that the train's brakes came on unexpectedly, but Laporte said Thursday he was not able to verify whether the brake line was faulty. Feeny said the brakes worked as they were designed to because they are applied automatically when there is a problem with the train.
Feeny said three cars were still burning Thursday morning at the site, which includes spilled diesel fuel. He said it's not known how long the fire will last and crews were working on a plan to extinguish it.
Aerial images of the derailment showed a jumble of cars strewn across the tracks in a wooded area. No one was injured.
CN president Claude Mongeau has said the train was inspected in Montreal as per regulation before it left that city and it would have moved over a number of wayside detectors designed to identify potential problems, such as mechanical issues with wheels or dragging equipment.
Laporte said his investigative team will review data from those detectors and specifically look at whether there was a change in temperature of the axle and wheel.
"If the temperature was raising a lot, it means that, 'Oh, we could have a problem,' " Laporte said.
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