Communities Find That Oil Trains Are A Disaster Waiting To Happen

In this Dec. 30, 2013, file photo, a fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BRUCE CRUMMY
In this Dec. 30, 2013, file photo, a fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BRUCE CRUMMY

When a freight train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed and exploded in the middle of the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people and destroying half of the downtown, no one knew it’d mark the start of a new era of train disasters, or that so little would be done to keep more from happening.

Less than a year and 10 oil train derailments later, it’s largely luck that has prevented another deadly disaster. Trains carrying crude travel through an unknown number of American cities on a daily basis, endangering countless residents, and safety efforts move slowly and with industry opposition. And Wednesday, the freight rail industry revealed that mandatory safety technology to prevent derailments and collisions will only be installed on 20 percent of tracks on deadline at the end of 2015.

Examples of inaction on rail safety are plentiful. Firefighters say they aren’t trained to deal with derailments or explosions. Trains travel in secret, in one instance passing through a town for over a year before residents had any say. Thin-shelled railcars continue to carry crude oil even after their contribution to multiple fiery derailments, and new railcar safety standards still aren’t final. And the Bakken crude oil that’s driving the need for train shipments was only discovered to be especially flammable after several explosions and fires had occurred.

The pace of oil drilling at North Dakota’s Bakken formation has created new need for sending oil by rail. Drilling companies are developing oil sources at a breakneck speed, meaning there’s no time to address worker safety or the wasteful flaring of a third of natural gas produced as a byproduct. A haphazard approach toward preventing disastrous crashes is just another consequence of prizing speed above all, despite the fact that the oil has been underground for millions of years, and isn’t going anywhere on its own.


Transporting oil by rail is a fairly new issue, which can obscure the fact that dramatic accidents shot up right with the volume of oil transported. As recently as 2010, only about 30,000 carloads of crude oil originated in the United States. By 2012 that number was 233,819 carloads, and 2013 saw 407,642. In the entire period from 1975 to 2012, railroads only spilled 800,000 gallons of crude. The Casselton, North Dakota spill alone spilled about 400,000.

But there’s hope, as communities take matters into their own hands, opposing hazardous oil-by-rail terminals even as industry officials throw a fit. An attempt to build the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal in Vancouver, Washington has come up against significant opposition from the city council over concerns for the safety of the city’s 165,000 residents. The terminal could take in 131 million barrels of oil a year, in the form of four trains a day, and Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., the companies behind the terminal, are scrambling to push it through. The Port of Portland already said no to oil train terminals over safety concerns. And Californian communities are having some success in stopping efforts to bring oil-laden trains through major population centers like Berkeley and Oakland.

Meanwhile, the rail industry is counting on further oil train gains in 2014 to offset declining coal and container traffic and make 2014 a good year. And as CSX Corp. Chairman, President, and CEO Michael Ward warned the industry publication Progressive Railroading, “excessive” safety regulations related to oil train explosions could put a damper on things.

Prior to 2013, derailments that resulted in explosions or fires typically involved ethanol, and they were uncommon. If the country is going to reduce the likelihood of a disaster caused by moving oil by rail, it will be led by communities fighting to protect themselves.

Of course, pipelines are a dangerous way to transport oil as well. Fiery pipeline explosions can leave people without heat and level homes. Even when they aren’t so dramatic, leaks are commonplace, and can leak huge amounts of oil before they are discovered — if they are discovered at all. To keep warming limited to two degrees celsius, most of it is going to need to stay in the only safe place for it: buried deep underground.