A U.S. town narrowly escaped tragedy when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded nearby, its mayor said Tuesday, calling for changes in how the fuel is transported across the country.

No one was hurt in Monday’s derailment that sent a huge fireball and black smoke into the sky just outside Casselton. The cause was under investigation.

Most of the about 2,400 residents obeyed a recommendation to evacuate their homes as strong winds blew potentially hazardous smoke toward the town overnight, Mayor Ed McConnell said Tuesday.

The derailment in North Dakota, the country’s No. 2 oil-producing state, happened amid heightened concerns about the United States’ increased reliance on rail to carry crude oil.

Fears of catastrophic derailments rose after the July crash in a Quebec town of a runaway train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. Forty-seven people died in the ensuing fire.

Rail tracks run through the middle of Casselton, and Mr. McConnell said it is time to “have a conversation” with federal lawmakers about the dangers of transporting oil by rail.

“There have been numerous derailments in this area,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we’re going to have an accident, it’s when.”

Residents said the blasts endured for hours, shaking their homes and businesses. Official estimates of the extent of the fire varied. BNSF Railway Co. said it believed about 20 cars caught fire. The sheriff’s office said it thought 10 cars were on fire. Officials said the cars would be allowed to burn out.

Investigators couldn’t get close to the burning train.

The number of crude oil carloads hauled by U.S. railroads surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year. Despite the increase, the rate of accidents has stayed relatively steady. Railroads say 99.997 per cent of hazardous materials shipments reach destinations safely.

Shipping oil by pipeline has to be a safer option, McConnell said on Tuesday.

North Dakota’s state’s top oil regulator has said he expected as much as 90 per cent of the state’s oil would be carried by train in 2014, up from the current 60 per cent.

More In: World | International | News