Oil Trains: Death and Destruction on the Rails

by on March 4, 2015 · 5 comments

in Economy, Energy, Environment, History

Department of Transportation Predicts Oil Train Derailments Will Become Increasingly Common

train derailmentBy John Lawrence

On Monday Feb 16, 2015 an oil train carrying millions of pounds of crude oil derailed in Boomer, West Virginia. The accident was the latest in a spate of fiery derailments in Canada and the U.S. as vast quantities of oil are being moved across these nations through sensitive environments and large population centers.

A couple days earlier on Feb. 14, there was a crude oil train derailment south of Timmins, Ontario. It took almost a week in subzero temperatures for the fires to burn out. Both the West Virginia accident and the oil train derailment and fire in Ontario involved recently built tank cars that were supposed to be an improvement over a decades-old model in wide use that has proven susceptible to spills, fires and explosions – the Dot-111.

On July 6, 2013 a train was left on the tracks near Lac Megantic, Quebec, with the engines running while the lone engineer and employee on the train checked into a nearby hotel. During the night the brakes failed and the train rolled downhill and derailed. Much of downtown Lac Megantic was destroyed by a raging fire. Several train cars exploded and 40 buildings were leveled. 47 people died – incinerated and vaporized. No remains were found for five of them.

And these are only some of the oil train accidents that have happened in the recent past. After an explosion in Casselton, N.D., 2300 residents were evacuated. There were similar incidents in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Aliceville, Alabama.

Responsibility for these catastrophes is divided between the oil and gas companies which own and provide the railcars and the railroads – such as CSX – which service and maintain the trackbeds, rails and bridges. Track maintenance or a lack thereof is responsible for most derailments, and substandard railcars are responsible for oil leakage and explosions. Even if the cars didn’t explode they would be dumping their contents into rivers, streams and aquifers.

The U.S. federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.

It’s one thing if a bridge collapses under a few automobiles, but, if one collapses under a mile long oil train, it could be absolutely catastrophic since there can be a chain reaction of explosions.

The fact of the matter is that trains a mile long carrying nothing but oil, 100 cars of it with 3 million gallons per train, are being used to haul the stuff out of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Canada. They are mostly using substandard, outdated and outmoded railcars which split open on impact. Since rail lines usually parallel rivers such as the Mississippi and Hudson, these trains are running through environmentally sensitive areas. On derailment there are fiery explosions with the contents being dumped into rivers and streams. These trains also travel near large population centers because that’s where the refineries, towards which they are headed, are located.

oil trainThese trains go across bridges which are not being maintained just as the many highway bridges are being neglected. The US, notorious for lack of infrastructure maintenance, has an estimated two trillion dollar backlog in that respect. It’s one thing if a bridge collapses under a few automobiles, but, if one collapses under a mile long oil train, it could be absolutely catastrophic since there can be a chain reaction of explosions.

And these trains do operate near population centers:

[T]here was an incident that occurred in downtown Philadelphia. There was a train crossing the Schuylkill River, and it came off the track. And it was suspended, hanging from the bridge for almost three days before they were able to right it. Now, in this case, the train did not fall off the elevated track. Had it fallen off the elevated track, almost certainly you would have seen fireballs hundreds of feet into the air and flaming tides of crude oil on the whatever was below, whether it was the river or a roadway. It would have been quite dramatic and perhaps even cataclysmic.

These oil trains are highly flammable because of the nature of the oil they carry from the Bakken fields. It’s not heavy, viscous crude. There are many dissolved gases in it that separate out during the long journey to refineries and float along on top of the light oil. The fact is that the Dot-111 rail cars were not designed to carry such highly flammable liquids. Their shells are not strong or thick enough. The opening at the top that they put the oil into breaks off in derailments. The valves don’t shut properly. At the bottom, there’s a fitting where they remove the oil. That, too, tends to break. Both ends of the cars need to be reinforced.

In an interview on NPR Marcus Stern said:

[W]hat happens when you end up with this gaseous blanket sitting on top of the liquid oil, if there is a breach of the railcar and any of the gas – the propane or butane gases inside – come in contact with the outside air and there is a spark, then you have one of those huge explosions or you see the fireballs going into the air hundreds of feet and a flaming oil going in all directions. And the emergency responders have to just cordon off the area to wait for them to burn out. And they’ll – one will blow, and it’ll act like a blow torch on another railcar that didn’t rupture, and then it will blow. And so you have a series of explosions that can go over two or three days.

It’s cheaper for CSX to pay fines after accidents occur than to properly maintain its rail system.

Before 2009, fewer than 10,000 tank cars of oil were transported by rail each year in the United States but that traffic jumped to more than 230,000 cars in 2012, and more than 430,000 in 2013. The reason is that there is no pipeline infrastructure in North Dakota, and rail is the only way to get the oil out of there. Because the infrastructure is inadequate and ill planned, the railcars in use were hastily adapted from other purposes and aren’t safe. Neither are the tracks and bridges. There are many more accidents just waiting to happen.

It’s cheaper for CSX to pay fines after accidents occur than to properly maintain its rail system. Virginia environmental officials proposed a paltry $361,000 civil fine against CSX as punishment for a 2014 derailment that saw nearly 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil dumped in and around the James River. The state Department of Environmental Quality said CSX should also pay the agency $18,574 for costs associated with investigating the April spill. In that incident, 17 oil tankers came off the tracks, and three were sent directly into the James. Local officials reported an explosion “causing extensive flames and dense black smoke.”

train-derailment-bakken-west-virginia-aerial-view_us-coast-guardDavid Cay Johnston wrote in Free Lunch:

CSX budgets for maintenance and inspection were cut and cut and cut. In the nineties CSX spent less money on maintenance per mile of track than any other railroad. After a spate of crashes that killed 19 and injured more than a hundred people, a federal report said that CSX “employees were not reporting injuries due to fear of reprisals, such as formal hearings or harsh discipline for minor unsafe acts or mistakes.”

But accidents are just a part of doing business for CSX as well as the oil corporations, whose profits have skyrocketed from the Bakken oil boom, in the race to exploit America’s fossil fuel reserves regardless of the cost to the environment in general or to human lives and property in particular.

According to Common Dreams:

Many insist that, over the long term, society must move away from fossil fuel extraction and the health and environmental hazards it poses—from climate change to transport by rail and pipeline.

“The reality is that there’s no way to safely transport highly volatile crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or heavy crudes from the Alberta tar sands,” said Jared Margolis of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead these fossil fuels should be left in the ground, both for our safety now and to avoid the impending climate catastrophe.”

Accidents waiting to happen involving outdated and unmaintained infrastructure are becoming commonplace. What else is new? Regulators are failing to regulate. Profit making corporations don’t want to spend money to properly maintain their railcars and railroads. They are playing Russian Roulette with the lives and property of many Americans. In the long run the fossil fuels that oil trains are carrying will only add to the carbonization of the atmosphere guaranteeing that global warming will finish off the human race sometime in the not too distant future if they are not incinerated by an oil train derailment in the near future.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie March 4, 2015 at 12:38 pm

John, thank you for pulling this together. It’s an important issue and as many spotlights as we can manage ought to be beamed on those who profit off this dangerous transport system.


Paul Wulterkens March 5, 2015 at 8:28 am

Current lack of enforcement ignores growing threats of Bakken oil
explosions so extensive and toxic, fire chiefs have testified that
“even if we had an infinite amount of foam,” the fires and toxic
emissions would continue until all fuel had been exhausted, killing
people and destroying wide swaths of land and riverbanks as they
burned. Railroads are making secret decisions and hiding documents to
such an extent, the federal Department of Transportation says it’s
“impossible to know” to what extent railroads have prioritized or
ignored safety in choosing routes. Railroads have also lobbied against
federal regulatory efforts aimed at retrofitting tank cars for greater
safety. Congress and the White House, Homeland Security and the FRA
need to address the danger of Bakken oil explosions before disaster strikes.

That’s why I signed a petition to Joseph C. Szabo, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration, which says:

“It’s time the Federal Railroad Administration enforces existing law
requiring regulation to preserve health and safety in communities
adjacent to railroad traffic, particularly in metropolitan areas.

Will you sign the petition too? Click here to add your name:




Frank Gormlie March 5, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Another train bomb went off today, this time in NW Illinois I believe. Just saw a report on the Rachel Maddow show.


John Lawrence March 6, 2015 at 10:13 am

From Reuters:

A BNSF Railway [BNISF.UL] train loaded with crude oil derailed and caught fire on Thursday afternoon in a rural area south of Galena, Illinois, according to local officials and the company.

The incident marks the latest in a series of derailments in North America and the third in three weeks involving trains hauling crude oil, which has put a heightened focus on rail safety.

Dark smoke was seen for miles around the crash site, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency told local WREX.com that two of the cars were potentially on fire.

The train with 105 loaded cars – 103 of them carrying crude oil – derailed around 1:20 p.m. CST (1920 GMT), according to a BNSF statement. The incident occurred on what appears to be a major rail line alongside the Mississippi River that handles as many as 50 oil-trains a week, one official said.


sean M March 6, 2015 at 2:45 pm

Makes more sense to transport oil in pipes than it does on trains. A significant amount of grains rotted last fall due to lack of available space on trains.


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