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The rail company that operated the train -- the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway -- said that shortly before midnight Friday, the train's conductor parked it and locked its brakes before checking into a hotel for the night.
But the rail line said that "sometime after, the train got loose," speeding into the town "under its own inertia," before derailing.
One person has been killed, according to police, but several people were reported missing.
The crash happened as the unmanned freight train travelled through the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town with a population of 6,000, on Saturday morning.
The train's operator confirmed it had been parked out of town, but they are unsure how it "got released".
Massive flames and thick smoke could be seen, locals have reported that many buildings have been destroyed.
More than 1,000 residents were told to leave the area.
No-one was on board the train when it rolled into the town, according to the operator the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway company.
Vice president Joseph McGonigle said: "We're not sure what happened, but the engineer did everything by the book.
"He had parked the train and was waiting for his relief ... somehow, the train got released."
Mayor Colette Roy-LaRoche was nearly in tears as she addressed the media, according to the Montreal Gazette.
When you see the downtown of your city almost destroyed you think, how are we going to get through this? But I can assure everyone here that all the authorities and ministries have been very supportive," she said.
"We've deployed all the resources possible."
Four tanker cars blew up after the train, which had 73 cars in all, came off the rails shortly after 1am local time.
Environmental experts have also arrived in the town to assess how much oil may have spilled into local waterways.
Environment Quebec spokesman Christian Blanchette said: "Right now, there is big smoke in the air, so we have a mobile laboratory here to monitor the quality of the air.
"We also have a spill on the lake and the river that is concerning us.
"We have advised the local municipalities downstream to be careful if they take their water from the Chaudiere River."
Originally posted by aboutface
reply to post by Montana
There was an observation made of grass growing between the rails at Nantes. So it would seem that supports your point of view.
My question above about train size is that I wonder that at the time sidings were built whether they had a certain length of train in mind. I don't know Nantes but since gravity seemed to play a part in this calamity, could a shorter train possibly mean that it could have been parked further back and maybe avoided an incline? I know this is speculation, but surely the length of a train must play some role in today's transportation issues?
Originally posted by aboutface
RDI reports that the railroad company says it's possible that the air brakes were to blame. They issued a press release about the tragedy yesterday here
Originally posted by Xzia99
-The locomotive (head wagon) was on fire 2 hours before the tragedy. It was a steady fire, firefighters were called to put it down. On the news, they say it was a fuel line that was on fire. It has been confirmed the head wagon that was on fire was from the same train that derailed.
-After the fire was put down, the train was parked for a shift change. The owning company confirmed they don't turn off the engines when they park trains for shift change, even if they keep running for hours. So the engine was still running, but the brakes were put on.
-The unattended train started rolling backwards down the hill for 12km, into Lac Megantic, where it derailed. Nobody knows why it started moving on its own.
-The locomotive (head wagon) was found 1km away from the crash in Lac Megantic: it got detached from the rest of the train at some point (was it from the start, or half way through? nobody knows).
I wonder if it is normal to keep an engine running, unattended, after a fire was put down. The company didn't ask to send another one. To me, it doesn't make sense!