The Oil Train Boom. Literally.

by Crane-Station

Westbound oil train, Essex MT
Image by Roy Luck, Creative Commons, flickr: Westbound oil train, Essex MT

The ‘shale revolution’ is here, along with an astonishing increase in rail carloads of crude oil in transport to refineries. In 2009, 9500 carloads of crude oil originated on US Class I Railroads. In 2013, that number increased, to an estimated 400,000 carloads.

In rail transport, the U.S. DOT-111 tank car, also known as the CTC-111A in Canada, is a type of non-pressure tank car in common use in North America. Up to 80% of the Canadian fleet, and 69% of U.S. rail tank cars are DOT-111 type. Hydraulic fracturing of new wells in the shale oil fields in the interior of North America has rapidly increased the use of DOT-111 cars to transport crude oil to existing refineries along the coasts. BNSF plans to buy 5,000 next-generation tank cars for transporting crude oil.

On July 6, 2013, an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil in Lac-Mégantic derailed and ran away , resulting in the fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Lac-Mégantic is located in the Eastern Townships of the Canadian province of Quebec. Forty-two people were confirmed dead with 5 more missing and presumed dead. People were seated in a bar at 1 AM, enjoying good company when suddenly faced with a runaway exploding train. More than 30 buildings in the town’s center, roughly half of the downtown area, were destroyed.

In November 2013, in Aliceville, Pickens County, Alabama, a Genesee & Wyoming company was the carrier for a 90-car train, of which 20 derailed and exploded. The train originated in Amory, Mississippi and was scheduled for a pipeline terminal in Walnut Hill, Florida that is owned by Genesis Energy. The final destination for the shipment was to have been the Shell Oil refinery in Mobile, Alabama. The accident happened in a depopulated wetlands area. The Institute for Southern Studies reports cleanup for the Alabama oil train wreck was met with official neglect.

On December 30, 2013, an oil train explosion occurred in Casselton, North Dakota causing the town to be evacuated. The BNSF train was more than 100 cars and 1.6km long, of which at least 10 cars were destroyed. Reports were that another train carrying grain derailed first, causing the adjacent Bakken formation cars to derail. Three days later, the USDOT PHMSA wrote that “Recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. Casselton mayor Ed McConnell, acknowledging that the town “dodged a bullet”, publicly called on the federal government to review the dangers and urged lawmakers to consider pipelines as a safer option.

On January 16, 2014, the US Department of Transportation (DOT), the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) met, for a Call to Action on Rail Safety Meeting. On January 22, the US Secretary of Transportation followed up with a letter to attendees, sharing an apparent epiphany that massively understated the obvious:

It is up to all of us to ensure that the crude oil, whether from North Dakota or elsewhere, is transported safely and securely with no adverse impact to Americans or their property.

While the American Association of Railroads points out that any spill via rail, no matter how miniscule, must be reported, it is notable that oil trains spilled more crude last year than in the previous 38 years combined. The AAR is quick to point out that rail transport is actually safer than pipeline transport:

Based on U.S. DOT data, the crude oil “spill rate” for railroads from 2002-2012 was an estimated 2.2 gallons per million ton-miles, compared with an estimated 6.3 for pipelines.

Not surprisingly, pipeline supporters are using the rail mishaps to sway support to pipeline transport (namely Keystone XL), and rail transport supporters argue the reverse, citing hundreds of unreported pipeline spills in North Dakota, as well as reported ones, like the Tesoro 825,200 gallon fracked oil spill in North Dakota.

Yesterday, February 25, federal regulators say “they’ve issued an emergency order requiring tests of crude oil before shipment by rail in response to a string of train explosions and fires since last summer. The Federal Railroad Administration said Tuesday it also is prohibiting shipping oil using the least-protective packing requirements.”

Are the regulating agencies interested in doing anything meaningful, or are they hostages to industry, getting together every once in a while, to issue a proclamation about something, giving the appearance of action?


A crude by rail facilities map is here. The Staggering Increase in Oil Spills via Rail, map (interactive) is here.

Steve Horn posts at Firedoglake and DeSmog Blog:
Missouri Permit Shows Exploding ND Oil Train Contained High Levels of Volatile Chemicals

The Boundless U.S. Natural Gas Boom: Exclusive Interview with EIA Chief
By: staffjam (Firedoglake) Sunday February 23, 2014

Train Derails In Pennsylvania, Spilling Up To 4,000 Gallons Of Oil BY Katie Valentine ON FEBRUARY 13, 2014

Why Nothing Is Being Done to Improve Oil by Rail Safety

Oil trains are coming our way, to safety worries in Seattle

Posted on February 21, 2014 | By Joel Connelly

Oil train accidents prompt BNSF to order tougher tank cars to reduce explosion risks

cross posted at MyFDL, Firedoglake

8 Responses to The Oil Train Boom. Literally.

  1. ed nelson says:

    darn it Crane Station, I got the boot over at FDL, because of I don’t know why, but you had 95 comments, (many of them both redundant, and nonresposive) but you answered most of them, and tell you what, onliest way I could comment there would be to make a whole new psuedonym or something, and maybe that would work, but I didn’t agree with their cavalier… or worse method of exclusion, and the total lack of accountability, as regards, my attempts to get some feed back on the why of it.

    so any hoo… Well bottom line, what I mean to ask you is, why not spend some of your valuable time, right here… spend more time here on your own great up and comming blog, I will contribute again when you do.


  2. ed nelson says:

    Real good point you made there Two… the earh may have existed for a time, and part of that time was in the pre life stages, when things happened, meaning, that the poisonous parts were somehow some way, put away in under ground deposits!!!!

    And what I mean is: the poisons were put or otherwise found a place, in nice caverns, in deposits, in places under the ground, where they were out of the…. BIOSPHERE… GOT THAT: Out of the realm of where those poisonous elements… really make life impossible. Check it out, the Universe is full of poisons, only our little special Earth is a place that life can be!

    Digging into the body of Earth, is a real bad thing to do, but tell that to the Mining industry! The things burried, with purpose, by, oh call it God… those poisons were somehow placed in underground cealled deposits, and that was part of the miracle of life if nothing other!

    The current practice to unburry the bad stuff, is the death of our planet, says Me!

    It says something in old religeous texts somewhere’s, that you don’t unburry, you don’t dig and bring up bad stuff, well brother, we are in a time when that is really too far gone!

    Those horrible chemicals and awful substances are brought up from the depths of hell, so don’t be too surprised… not too!

  3. Two sides to a story says:

    Between disasters like exploding trains and climate chaos exacerbated by use of petroleum, we’d all be better off to leave the rest of the stuff in the ground and make a huge, concerted effort to refine alternate energy technologies.

    I believe petroleum is probably supposed to stay in the ground anyway (some sort of Earth blood) because we’re sitting in a galaxy full of giant solar cells and just need to figure out how to use these efficiently.

  4. ed nelson says:

    A train kind of has some of the advantages that are like robotics, in the sense that, the tracks keep it reliably on course over the most efficient predetermined route, the cars fall one the other, in greatest economy of space, locomoted by the correct power.

    In addition to that is the benefit of being # two in transportation efficiency: Steel on Steel, which is surpassed only by water borne.

    Pipeline commodity conveyance could be a viable method if…. IF, there was any commitment to the integrity of the design of it, but that is out of question in these days. There is no commitment to any kind of commitment, that would ever cost a $$!

    Every thing today is to cut corners and pocket the difference!

    Extraction 101 is the mantra.

    PS: do you have any ideas on nuclear, vise vise Fukashima… Hanford?

    The silence seems almost deafening, makes me wonder if nuc is a huge mind game, maybe they ain’t no such thing as nuclear, could a been that they just made a super size TNT bomb, to blow up the Jap cities… It’s well knowed that the air force fire bombed and burnt up with ”Fire Storms” a thousand cities and killed millions in Japan and Germany.

    They had so many bodies to bury, millions of ’em… my friend went to Dacau in the 60’s, and said he could still smell death there.

    Well I digress, keep up keep’n on Crane Sta.

  5. ed nelson says:

    Real good post Crane Sta. Now I am wondering, why don’t the Rail Road people put out some PR for their own good, or are they a mere subsidiary of big oil too? Rebuild the damned things and put some guys to work, Obominal… use the unitary executive to do something else other scratch yer nether regions… Ew!

    Of course, anything as inhearently good as Rail, would be a non starter for the kleptos, can’t steal enough out of good things!

    they been ripping out rail since the 40’s, LA, SFbay area, and on and on all had great systems at one time, with small fractions of todays population carring the revenues, Electric trains were common place, like you thought they hadn’t been invented yet, no couldn’t steal enough out of good things, so it goes.

    • Thank you Ed. I actually think that the trains are doing what they can, given the sort of…situation they were put in. The pipeline-supporter types are using the train thing to support pipelines, but the thing is, trains may actually be safer, believe it or not.

      At any rate, there is a train vs pipeline debate going on. I just wish these issues were addressed, years ago.

  6. masonblue says:

    Bloomberg News
    Rail Projects Boosting Oil Flow to California Refineries
    By Lynn Doan February 26, 2014

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