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Viral London train fire sparks many questions. Here are the key ones



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An investigation is underway into a Sunday evening freight train fire in the city’s core that caused about $35,000 damage to five rail cars and a downtown building and lit up social media. But it remains to be seen what sparked the blaze, an occurrence that happens about once a week on average in Canada. Our Jennifer Bieman reports

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How did a burning freight train end up in downtown London?

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A massive nighttime fire engulfed five CPKC Rail freight train cars north of the core Sunday. Multiple residents called 911 to report an eastbound Canadian Pacific Kansas City train on fire along Oxford Street near Cherryhill Village Mall at about 10:45 p.m. 

London fire crews intercepted the train near Waterloo and Pall Mall streets. More than two dozen firefighters used water and foam to douse the flames. The train crew disconnected the burning cars that were carrying wooden rail ties from other empty cars used to carry hazardous material.  

No injuries or significant damage to property were reported.  

Who’s investigating the incident?

CPKC has launched its own investigation into the incident, spokesperson Terry Cunha said Tuesday. No further updates on the status of the probe were available Tuesday. 

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) – an independent agency that probes air, marine, pipeline and rail transportation incidents – may launch a full investigation into the train fire as well, but it’s not a given, said Ian Naish, a rail safety consultant. 

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“They’ll investigate ones they think they can learn something from and apply those lessons to other events to minimize risk,” said Naish, a former chief of policy, regulations and standards for Transport Canada’s Railway Safety Directorate. 

The TSB said Monday it was aware of the incident and was gathering information. 

If the TSB does launch a full investigation into Sunday’s fire, the final report on the incident will likely take many months to complete, Naish said. 

A flaming train moves across a London rail overpass in this screengrab from a video posted to social media on Sunday, April 21, 2024.

What causes train fires?

Speaking generally about train fires and not about the particular London incident, Naish said there are a few potential culprits. Arson or vandalism are possibilities, he said, but there also are other potential ignition sources involving the train itself.  

“Equipment can be faulty and you can get sparks,” he said. “Bits of hot metal can also start fires. . . . Wheels of trains get hot.”  

Sparks also can fly out of the train’s exhaust system if the system is not well maintained, Naish said. 

Sparks and pieces of hot metal flying off trains have been culprits in bush fires along rail tracks, Naish said. 

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Investigators hunting for what caused a fire will interview witnesses, including fire crews, and piece together the events leading up to the crash using locomotive data recording software, communications with train dispatch and other details, Naish said.

How common are train fires?

Of the 995 accidents investigated by the TSB in 2022, the latest year data is available, 46 were fires or explosions aboard trains. In 2021, fires aboard trains accounted for 46 of the 898 accidents investigated by the national transportation safety regulator. 

Fires and explosions aboard rolling stock, an industry term for rail cars, is one of several categories of accidents investigated by the TSB. Derailments, crossing accidents and incidents involving trespassers were the top three accidents reported by the TSB in 2022.  

The number of fires involving rolling stock has been increasing since 2012, TSB statistics show. In 2012, the board investigated 17 fires and 10 the following year. From 2014-18, the number of train fires probed by the board hovered in the low- to mid 30s. 

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