Oil By Rail = Runaway Exploding Trains Across North America

An over 4,000% increase in oil by rail transport over the last six years1 may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s anything but. The reality is that crude by rail increasingly poses a grave threat to millions of Americans—and our authorities are doing nothing about it. Oil train derailments are happening pretty much every single month. Aliceville, Alabama; Casselton, North Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia…the list goes on to include deadly derailments like the July 2013 Quebec disaster, which took the lives of 47 people.

Based on the oil industry’s history of neglected pipelines, faulty oil rigs, unmaintained refinery equipment, and countless oil disasters, we know that the industry couldn’t care less about you and me, or the impact it has on our air, land, and water. The reckless exploitation of our national rail network is just another sign that oil companies put profits over people.

Enough is enough. It’s time to come together and stop this reckless industry. You can do something right now by signing the petition on the right-hand side of the page.

The Blast Zone map uses data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s publicly available rail map data set2. There are many more possible rail lines than we show on the map—these rail routes were chosen based on the article “All Oiled Up,” available in the March 2014 issue of Trains Magazine and authored by Fred Frailey 3. The article shows the most likely rail routes used for oil by rail.

The blast zone shown on the map is 1,600 meters on each side of the tracks. The inner color (red) is the distance that federal emergency responders advise evacuating in case of a derailment of oil tanker cars, the outer color (yellow) the distance to be evacuated if any of the derailed cars are on fire4. A derailment and explosion of multiple cars carrying Bakken crude has the potential for a much wider area of damage than shown on this map, especially in a unit train carrying nothing but oil tanker cars.

US oil consumption is down, so why has oil by rail increased over 4,000% over the last six years?

Over the last five years, the US has consistently used less and less oil 5. We’re clearly on the right track when it comes to consumption. So why, then, are oil producers in the Bakken region of North Dakota and the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada dramatically ramping up production of crude oil? The answer is simple: profit.

With the decreased demand for oil consumption in the US, the oil production industry is setting its sights on overseas, international markets. And what’s the fastest and easiest way for this crude to be shipped? By rail—one of the newest and least-regulated methods of shipping oil—to any international seaport that will accept it. And as this shipping practice increases, so do the number of seaside rail terminals that are able to accept and offload oil from these giant trains.

What makes oil by rail so dangerous?

There are three major factors to the danger of shipping oil by rail:

  1. The state of our railways;
  2. The sudden increase in the amount of rail traffic;
  3. And the amount of oil that is being shipped per train in unsafe rail cars.

Most of the US rail network was built 100 or more years ago. While rails have been modified and maintained over the years to carry the average number of rail cars per train all over the country, there have been little to no modifications done to the existing rail network to account for the over 4,000% increase in traffic. The number of cars and the weight of the tracks have a huge impact on the structural system—an impact that has not been addressed over the last six years.

A single oil train will carry 100 or more rail cars loaded with three million gallons of crude oil—enough to fill four and a half olympic-sized swimming pools. When so much explosive oil is put on a single train, and sped down tracks that haven’t been upgraded for this increased traffic, every oil train is a huge concentration of risk.

To make matters worse, the rail cars that hold these millions of gallons of crude oil (called DOT-111 cars) are extremely dangerous. Over 80% of them are built to old 1970s standards and incredibly likely to puncture in an accident. Sparks from the wheels, mixed with easily punctured or leaking crude oil cars—some carrying crude with a tendency to self-ignite—is a recipe for an explosive disaster.

Why aren’t regulators protecting US citizens from exploding trains?

Since 1991 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that the most commonly used rail cars carrying crude today (the DOT-111) be removed from use for flammable substances. 6

But the NTSB is only an advisory board that makes recommendations to the US agency that has the power to act: the Department of Transportation (DOT). So far, the DOT has failed to solve this safety issue. And who oversees the DOT? None other than the President of the United States.

With railroads and oil companies and their lobbyists all over the place, no Presidential administration since 1991 has had the stomach for the fight to protect Americans—and the Obama Administration looks to be no different. But we can change that if we act now.