(New throughout, adds more details about train wreck, comments from city officials)
By Selam Gebrekidan
NEW YORK, April 30 (Reuters) - A CSX Corp train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia on Wednesday, spilling oil into the James River and forcing the evacuation of hundreds.
CSX said 15 cars derailed at 2:30 p.m. EDT on a train traveling from Chicago to Virginia. Photos and video footage from the scene showed high flames and a large plume of black smoke. Officials said there were no injuries, but some 300 to 350 people in a half-mile radius had been evacuated.
City officials instructed motorists and pedestrians to stay away from downtown, while firefighters battled the blaze. Three railcars were still on fire as of 4 p.m., CSX said.
JoAnn Martin, director of communications for the city, said three or four tank cars were leaking, and burning oil was spilling into the river, which runs to Chesapeake Bay. She said firefighters were trying to contain the spill and would probably let the fire burn itself out.
The fiery derailment occurred a short distance from office buildings in downtown Lynchburg, a city of 77,000. The incident was sure to prompt critics to call for stricter regulations of the burgeoning business of shipping crude oil by rail.
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. The flames streaked as high as the 19th floor of his office building, he said.
"The smoke and fire were on a long stretch of the train tracks. The smaller fires died down pretty quickly. You could feel the heat from the fire," Randy Taylor, who was working downtown when the train derailed, told the station.
The Department of Transportation said it was sending Federal Railroad Administration inspectors to the scene.
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 the origin of the cargo or the train's final destination. Most East Coast refineries are far to the north. One of the only oil facilities to the east of Lynchburg is a converted refinery in Yorktown, which is now a storage depot run by Plains All American. The company did not immediately reply to queries.
It was not clear what had caused the accident or triggered the fire in Lynchburg, the commercial center of central Virginia. CSX is "responding fully" to the derailment with emergency personnel, safety and environmental experts, it said.
Diane Riley, a spokeswoman for Centra Lynchburg General Hospital, said they have had no injuries or casualties brought in from that train derailment.
Lawmakers and rail officials 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.
Local communities, particularly those in New York and the Pacific Northwest, have grown concerned about the sometimes mile-long oil trains that have been rolling across the country. Previous derailments have occurred in places as far removed as Alberta and Quebec in Canada, and North Dakota and Alabama in the United States.
In Virginia, environmental groups have raised alarm about the new traffic in crude oil - including light and volatile crude from North Dakota's Bakken region - that is being transported by rail to the Yorktown terminal, which can handle 140,000 barrels per day.
Their concerns have revolved around CSX's route through populated areas like Lynchburg and the proximity to the James River. Groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have opposed an expansion of crude-by-rail shipments through the region, citing environmental and safety concerns.
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, Joshua Schneyer, Anna Driver, Patrick Rucker, Josephine Mason, Ian Simpson; Editing by David Gregorio)