‘Risky’ Crude Oil Trains Should Stay Away From Cities, Federal Investigators Say

Railway cars carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec derail, causing explosions. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/THE CANADIAN PRESS, PAUL CHIASSON
Railway cars carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec derail, causing explosions. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/THE CANADIAN PRESS, PAUL CHIASSON

After investigating multiple fiery accidents involving crude oil trains that have derailed and crashed, The National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] is now calling for tougher regulations on the practice — including recommendations that those trains stay far away from urban population centers.

“The NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident,” the agency said in its Thursday release. “Crude oil is problematic when released because it is flammable, and the risk is compounded because it is commonly shipped in large units.”

Though the agency has not yet issued any new binding rules, it issued three recommendations to both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The first would require expanded infrastructure to allow hazardous materials and crude oil to route around cities, rather than through them.

The second would require agencies to audit rail carriers that carry petroleum products, making sure they have adequate response capabilities to address worst-case-scenarios. Under the third recommendation, agencies would also be required to audit rail carriers to make sure they are properly classifying hazardous materials.


“If unit trains of flammable liquids are going to be part of our nation’s energy future, we need to make sure the hazardous materials classification is accurate, the route is well planned, and the tank cars are as robust as possible,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement.

Calling its own announcement “unprecedented,” the NTSB said that safety regulations for trains carrying crude oil and other flammable materials need to catch up with the country’s recent crude-by-rail boom.

Indeed, transporting crude oil by rail has boomed — both figuratively and literally — in the last year. Federal regulators recently reported that more oil has spilled from rail cars in 2013 than in the last four decades combined, which is in line with how much the practice itself has increased.

North Dakota’s Bakken shale, for example, recently announced record oil production of almost 1 million barrels per day, or approximately 5 percent of total U.S. oil consumption — 90 percent of which is transported on rails, according to the state’s Mineral Resources Department. A million barrels a day is more than the capacity of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport 830,000 barrels per day.

NTSB’s full set of recommendations can be found here.

The NTSB’s announcement is likely welcome news for the hundreds of residents who live in Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard and Capitol Riverfront neighborhoods, who are currently fighting a proposal by CSX Corp. to run trains carrying crude oil and hazardous materials through an open trench in their neighborhood while the company reconstructs an old rail tunnel. Though the trains that would run through the neighborhood wouldn’t be full “unit trains” — meaning entire trains of oil or hazmats — CSX has confirmed that the trains can carry both hazmats and an “unlimited” amount of crude oil.


CSX has confirmed that most of its oil comes from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, a type of oil which the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has warned could be especially flammable due to either particular properties of the oil or added chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract it.

The D.C. residents are calling for the trains to re-route around the city.