A train car named Disaster

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Feb. 5, 2014, 12:23 a.m.

I once saw a train on fire.

Or rather, it had been on fire quite recently and was now charred black and still smoking, making its way at a good clip down the tracks next to the Montana highway on which Dad and I were driving. Two men leaned over the rails of the rear caboose, using massive hoses to spray water on the vegetation beside the tracks, evidently to snuff out any sparks left in the train’s wake. It seemed like a risky strategy.

It was a sight I’d never expected, and one I didn’t figure on seeing again — until late last year, when stories of flaming, even exploding trains seemed to suddenly fill the news.

What changed to make such a seemingly safe transportation method so dramatically hazardous?

The cargo.

Chivvied by calls for energy security (loosely translated as “Drill, baby, drill — on American soil” by our politicians), the rail system has been shouldering more and more of the crude oil burden as domestic production has increased.

Usually, when I think of overland oil transportation, I think of pipelines, like the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska, a 4-foot-wide snake linking Prudhoe Bay to the shipping port of Valdez; or the Keystone-XL, winding its way through a mire of environmental risk assessments and political battles.

But recently, as domestic oil production has climbed to almost 6.5 million barrels per day, pipeline construction hasn’t kept up.

Pipelines cost money, time and political willpower to build. Train tracks, on the other hand, are already there. It’s easy to adjust the number of payloads according to supply and demand. And, since America’s industrial centers are already linked by railroad tracks, it’s easy to adjust routes as some oil fields are exhausted and other deposits are found.

Sounds like a pipe-less dream come true.

But not if you talk to Aliceville, Ala., locals who had to wait out a multi-day blaze after a fiery derailment last November. Or to the citizens of Casselton, North Dakota, who got a 400,000-gallon spill and 1,400-person evacuation for Christmas just seven weeks later.

Perhaps the worst accident occurred in Quebec last July, when an explosive derailment killed 47. And in a near miss last month, a train derailed, but didn’t leak, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 2013 alone, railroad accidents spilled 1.15 million gallons of crude oil. That’s enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools — and more than the total amount spilled in the 37-year span between 1975 and 2012.

In part, we’re spilling more because we’re transporting more. Last year, railroads transported 10% of U.S. oil field production in 400,000 railroad carloads. That’s almost double the number transported in 2012, itself staggering in comparison to just 9,500 carloads in 2008.

But we’re also taking unacceptable risks. Crude oil is carried in flimsy cars of outdated design. And crude oil from the booming Bakken fields under Montana, N.D., and parts of Canada seems to be particularly flammable. So a derailment is more likely to cause a spill, and that spill is more likely to burst into flame.

What are we doing about these risks? Hand waving, mostly.

A joint recommendation from the United States National Transportation Safety Board and its Canadian equivalent called for tighter regulations and routes that avoid population centers. The two boards are virtually powerless, though, so railroad moguls have politely said, “Yes, of course, we’re already working on it,” and carried on without the expensive retrofitting required. The Federal Railroad Administration, charged with fining non-compliant companies into submission, appears to be settling for a shrug and slap on the wrist.

The U.S. government seems to have accepted these hazards as the “cost of doing business” for fossil-fuel-based energy security. In a way, it isn’t an incorrect appraisal of the situation. As we vertically integrate oil extraction, refinement and use within our own borders, we’ll face more of the environmental hazards and safety consequences. And there will always be consequences: the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, fracking pollution, and now railroad spills are neither the first nor the last. Last year, two of the biggest pipeline leaks (Arkansas in May and North Dakota in September) spilled almost as much oil as the railroads did.

I, however, am not willing to accept these consequences. Railroads already transport hazardous materials safely: They should extend use of these cars and techniques to crude oil. We should charge steep fines for accidents, using some of the money for railroad upgrades if we must, but primarily to fund renewable energy infrastructure. Wind farms and solar panel banks have their limitations, but at least they won’t go “boom” in my backyard.


Holly welcomes reader feedback at [email protected]. Also, if you happen to know the story behind any Montana train fires in 2007, let her know.

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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