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Oil by rail

Plans to double, even triple, tar sands oil production has spawned more than a dozen proposals to build more pipelines that threaten waterways, forests and communities. But Big Oil is also pushing to expand the use of railways to transport its bitumen crude, a strategy that is just as dangerous as pipelines.

Like pipelines, which leak and spill on a regular basis, railroads come with unacceptable risks. Just ask the residents of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, 130 miles east of Montreal. On the night of July 6, 2013, a train with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic. Explosions went on for hours, leveling half the town of 6,000 people, destroying 30 buildings, and killing 47 people.

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Oil companies turning to railroads to transport tar sands crude
Key Problems:
- Oil spills and leaks as a result of derailment and other accidents
- Rail cars are unsafe, and explosions can and do occur
- Unlocks massive growth of tar sands, causing climate catastrophe  
Current Status:
More than 35 new oil-by-rail proposals to transport tar sands crude

Like pipeline ruptures and tanker spills, train accidents happen. It’s not a question of “if” but “when” trains derail, releasing their toxic contents into the surrounding environment.

Crude oil traveling by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. More crude oil was spilled from trains in 2013 than in the last 40 years combined. Seven of the worst 10 railroad oil spills of the past decade – which cost nearly $2 million to clean up – happened in the last three years alone.

There are more than 35 new crude-by-rail proposals in the U.S. alone. If built, they would combine to transport over 2.5 million barrels of oil per day – three times the amount of oil as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This would increase the number and severity of rail spills significantly.

It’s common knowledge that rail cars carrying tar sands oil are unsafe—the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been saying as much since 1991. The tank cars usually used to move the oil, called DOT-111 cars, are prone to puncturing and exploding even during derailments as slow as 36 miles per hour (58kph). Thanks to the crude-by-rail boom there's a two-year backlog on orders for an upgraded, somewhat safer version that has been in circulation since 2011. What’s more, those DOT-111 tank cars are often strung together in trains of 100 cars or more, exacerbating the risk of a major spill.

The NTSB recently issued a report that concluded, "railroad accidents involving crude oil have a potential for disastrous consequences and environmental contamination equal to that of the worst on-shore pipeline accidents," and that “oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation.” 

Oil by rail Updates & Resources

Bitumen fireballs wreck tank car transition scheme

David Thomas | Railway Age - March 10th 2015

Press Clipping: Before CN’s first Gogama wreck Feb. 14, there was a widespread and comforting belief among railroaders, regulators and, yes, even railroad reporters, that tar sands bitumen was much safer for transport by rail than light or conventional crude oils. We now know, thanks to Gogama 1 and Gogama 2, that neither dilbit nor synbit, the synthetically diluted variant of tar sands oil, are safer than untreated Bakken crude. Consequently, the strategy for renewal of the tank car fleet is based upon an entirely erroneous premise. The whole schedule must be recalculated, based on the evidence that bitumen is not fit for carriage in general-purpose tank cars.

Another train carrying crude oil derails near Gogama, Ont.

March 7th 2015

Press Clipping: Several cars have caught fire after a Canadian National Railway train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario, prompting officials to advise nearby residents to stay indoors and avoid consuming water from local sources. The Transportation Safety Board said 30 to 40 cars derailed four kilometres southwest of Gogama, Ont., and there were no initial reports of injuries. Several cars have caught fire, police said, and others entered the Mattagami River System. This is the fourth CN Rail derailment in northern Ontario this year. A train derailed last month, spilling crude oil and forcing the closure of the rail line.

Tank cars spilled one million litres at CN crash


Len Gillis | Timmins Times - March 6th 2015

Press Clipping: A preliminary report from the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) estimates that more than a million litres of crude oil or petroleum distillates was released as the result of the CN train derailment last week on the mainline between Gogama and Foleyet. The report indicated that the tank cars that broke open and spilled petroleum product, or caught fire, were the Class-111 tank cars, all constructed within the past three years and compliant with industry standards. The TSB report also suggested that even the newer Class-111 tank cars are not tough enough to withstand even low speed crashes and that a better tank car is needed.

Fuel trains could derail up to 10 times a year over next two decades, feds predict


Matthew Brown and Josh Funk | Associated Press - February 23rd 2015

Press Clipping: The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S. The 207 total derailments over the two-decade period would cause $4.5 billion in damage, according to the analysis, which predicts 10 "higher consequence events" causing more extensive damage and potential fatalities.

Northern B.C. chiefs want to stop oil transport through province by rail

February 23rd 2015

Press Clipping: First Nations leaders in northern British Columbia are threatening to block all attempts to move oil through the province by rail as they explore alternatives. Five aboriginal leaders are leading the call to halt oil by rail as they cite the landmark Tsilhqot'in (SILL'-ko-teen) court decision, which they say reinforces the requirement for First Nations to be consulted over the railway in their territory. Burns Lake Indian Band Chief Dan George says oil by rail is a serious threat and the chiefs feel obligated to explore safer alternatives.

Unregulated oil by rail versus Keystone XL: A false choice

Anthony Swift | NRDC - February 18th 2015

Blog Post: If the horrifying images of this weekend's West Virginia oil train fire and spill seem familiar; they should. We saw the same type of disaster in the state last summer too, when a train derailed last April in Lynchburg, Virginia, dumping 29,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is not going to take that oil off the rails. If we want to reduce the risks from oil trains, let's fix the trains and toughen safety standards.

Oil train derails in Canada, spills unknown amount of tar sands crude


Katie Valentine | Think Progress - February 17th 2015

Press Clipping: A train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario, Canada late Saturday night, spilling oil and causing a fire. Twenty-nine of the 100 cars on the train went off the track near Timmins, Ontario, and seven of those cars were still on fire as of Monday afternoon. The derailment is just one of many that have occured in the U.S. and Canada in recent years, as oil producers increasingly rely on rail to transport crude.

West Virginia train derailment dumps oil into river


Richard Perez-Pena | New York Times - February 17th 2015

Press Clipping: A wrecked train hauling millions of pounds of oil continued burning in West Virginia on Tuesday, a day after it derailed in a snowstorm and sent fireballs ripping through the air. The derailment prompted the evacuation of nearby villages and dumped crude oil into a river, forcing the shut-off of local water supplies. Photos and videos posted online by witnesses showed the burning tankers that had tumbled down the Kanawha River bank or piled against each other at odd angles. There were multiple explosions as flames shot hundreds of feet in the sky.