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Rail safety advocate shares insight as questions linger over downtown London, Ont. freight train fire

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Two days after a freight train with several cars engulfed by flames rolled through the heart of London, a rail safety advocate is speaking out about how changes should be expected.

Just before 11 p.m. on Sunday, a CP Rail freight train with five rail cars ablaze travelling eastbound near Oxford Street prompted multiple 911 calls.

While the incident brought both concern and fear to residents, one rail safety advocate still cannot believe his eyes when viewing video captured of the incident.

John Wever spent 32 years on the railroad, including 18 as an engineer, before he began to speak out. In all that time, he never witnessed something like what transpired in the Forest City on Sunday night.

“I haven’t seen anything like that, other than the pictures of Lac Megantic, but wow! Especially, going through a city right, it’s just incredible!” he said.

Canadian Pacific Railway - Kansas City Southern Railway (CPKC) officials are investigating the incident.

A train caught fire while moving through downtown London April 21, 2024. (Source: Mikhail Ivanov)

Members of the London Fire Department spent one hour putting out the five cars, which were carrying old railway ties.

The official cause will take time, but Wever suggests there aren’t many scenarios were the ties could ignite as the train rolled between Strathroy and London.

“The only way it could get like that is if there was a big flame in the lead car and flames just hopped one car to the next car between Strathroy and London,” he explained.

In the meantime, many people are raising questions about why the CPKC train stopped in a built up city, and why it continued with five cars ablaze for some time.

Wever wonders the same, but also points out that train length makes it hard for crews to know what’s going on behind them.

First responders on scene in downtown London after a moving train caught fire on April 21, 2024. (Source: Joseph O'Neil/Facebook)“It might be practically impossible to see your entire train,” he explained. “I’ve had many trains close to three miles long.”

Wever said there are safety devices to alert engine crews, but none are designed to catch an open car blaze.

“But I don’t know if there is anything they have out there to detect something like that out there yet,” he said.

While a disturbing sight, Wever cautions that unless chemical rail cars derail, it is unlikely a railway fire alone would be able to cause a catastrophe.

“I think it would take quite a fire to ignite a tank car. You’d probably have to have a derailment and the tank car sitting right on the fire,” he said. 

Burned train cars are seen after a train caught fire and rolled through downtown London on April 21, 2024. (Reta Ismail/CTV News London)

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