(New throughout, adds details about train wreck)
NEW YORK, April 30 (Reuters) - A CSX Corp train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia on Wednesday, with several tank cars spilling oil into the nearby James River, city officials said.
A spokeswoman said several train cars derailed around 2 p.m. EDT and there was fire and smoke at the site of the incident. Photos posted by the city online showed high flames and a large plume of black smoke. Officials said there were no reports of injuries but some 300 people in the area had been evacuated.
Some 14 train cars had derailed, said JoAnn Martin, director of communications for the city. The train was run by CSX Corp, she said. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Local television footage showed that the fire had died down with no flames visible. The train derailed just meters from office buildings in downtown Lynchburg, the footage showed.
John Francisco, a lawyer in Lynchburg at the firm of Edmunds & Williams, told local TV station WSET 13 he heard a loud noise that sounded like a tornado and then watched as several cars derailed from a train of about 60 tank cars.
He then watched in horror as flames streaked into the sky, as high as the 19th floor of his office at Bank of the James building.
Several trains carrying crude oil have derailed over the past year, prompting critics to question the safety of hauling explosive liquids by rail. Last July, a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded, killing 47 people.
There was no immediate information about where the train was coming from or where it was heading. Most East Coast refineries are far to the north. One of the only crude oil facilities to the east of Lynchburg is a converted refinery in Yorktown, which is now a storage depot run by Plains All American.
Many activists have called for tougher regulations related to hauling crude and flammable liquids across North America. U.S. regulators are expected soon to propose new rules for more robust tank cars to replace older models.
Another CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia in January, nearly toppling over a bridge. CSX has been positioning itself to deliver increasing volumes of crude oil to East Coast refineries and terminals.
In January, CSX chief executive Michael Ward told analysts on a conference call that the company, which shipped 46,000 car loads of crude by rail last year planned, to boost such shipments by 50 percent this year.
At the time, Ward said that Jacksonville, Florida-based railroad was working with U.S. regulators to address safety concerns about crude-by-rail shipments in light of recent derailments and fires. (Reporting by Selam Gebrekidan and Joshua Schneyer; Editing by David Gregorio)