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Off the Rails

Oil trains keep jumping the tracks, setting towns ablaze, and contaminating water supplies. Here’s why.

“Route selection, train speeds, track inspections, and the training of personnel, all reflect today's high standards established to move [crude oil by rail] safely.”

I pulled this statement from the Association of American Railroads website on Tuesday morning. I wonder how long it will be there. In the past four days, two 100-tanker trains carrying millions of pounds of oil have crashed. The first jumped the rails in northern Ontario Saturday night, despite recent inspections of both the train and the track. On Monday, a second train crashed in West Virginia, providing a spectacular pyrotechnic display for the 600-odd residents of Boomer, just before cutting off their water supply and forcing them to evacuate the village. As of this writing, it’s not clear how much crude the train has dumped into the Kanawha River.

Two derailings in close succession might be dismissed as a coincidence if there weren’t already a long history of crude-by-rail accidents. At least one train slips off the tracks every day in the United States, according to Federal Railroad Administration, and with more and more trains transporting oil across North America, the chances for disasters are increasing. Actual disasters are, too: More than a dozen oil trains have crashed in the last 18 months, and in 2014 alone more oil spilled from trains than had in the previous 40 years. In 2013, a 74-car freight train exploded in Quebec, killing 47 and burning down half of the town of Lac-Mégantic. Crude-by-rail is so notoriously risky that observers call the locomotives “bomb trains.”

The safety issues with crude-by-rail are many. First and foremost, oil trains carry too much weight and travel too fast, representing an astonishing amount of kinetic energy.  Some of the doomed trains were going faster than 50 miles per hour when they foundered. New regulations under consideration by the U.S. federal government would reduce the maximum speed of oil trains to 40 miles per hour, but their prospects are uncertain.

“The oil industry has strongly opposed safeguards that would increase the cost of shipping crude by rail, even many that are critical to ensuring the safety of communities along the routes,” says Anthony Swift, a staff attorney at NRDC. (Disclosure.)

Slowing the trains would be a first step, but it’s not enough to make crude-by-rail safe. An oil train that derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, last spring was only traveling at 23 miles per hour, but it still dumped three of its tankers into the James River and set off a massive fire.

That train, like most other oil trains, was using the much maligned DOT-111 tanker cars. These old model tankers have thin steel shells that are prone to rupture, and the fittings tend to give way in accidents. Many of the catastrophes of the past few years would have been somewhat less catastrophic if the tankers were tougher. But unlike the trains themselves, the progress on that front is moving very slow.

The problems with DOT-111 cars have been known for decades, but those tankers still carry the majority of the crude traveling across North America.

Tougher tankers, though, are not a cure-all either. The tankers involved in Monday’s derailment in West Virginia were not DOT-111s but the more modern CPC-1232 model. The supposedly more robust tankers still ruptured and exploded.

Rethinking how much oil is shipped in a single train and how the cars are arranged would help. Ten years ago, crude oil was transported in “manifest” trains, which mingled oil tankers with cars carrying grain, manufactured products, and other goods. The diversity of products made loading and unloading expensive and slow, but it made the train safer in an accident: A derailment was less likely to set off a chain reaction of burning oil.

The growth in domestic crude output over the past few years has fueled the crude-by-rail boom (figuratively speaking). But the advent of “unit” trains, which carry only crude oil, has also contributed.

Unit trains make loading and unloading fast and cheap for crews using specialized equipment, but they are terrible for safety. Rather than a single tanker catching fire, we now face the prospect of a mile-long train carrying 2 million gallons of oil igniting a massive conflagration.

One more thing: Don’t buy TransCanada’s argument that crude-by-rail disasters demonstrate the need for the Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, the two transport methods have very little to do with each other.

“The vast majority of crude moving by rail in North America is moving east or west from the Bakken shale or other shale sources,” says Swift. “That’s not the tar sands crude that Keystone XL would have shipped south from Alberta. Keystone XL wouldn’t take crude off the rails.”

In the past four years, North Dakota oil producers have rejected two proposed pipelines, because they prefer the flexibility of rail. It allows them to sell their products to whichever market is paying the highest price at the time of delivery.  Oil producers don’t see pipelines as a replacement for crude-by-rail. They want both.

You can’t fault them for asking—they’re oil companies. But we have to be smarter about the highly flammable and toxic fuels we allow to speed through our towns, rural areas, and national parks. Some of the country’s most populous states, like California and New York, have already tightened regulations. Unless others follow their lead—or, even better, surpass them in safety—these disasters will keep coming around the bend. 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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