Bomb Trains

LNG-By-Rail Hits Tracks in Alaska: What Are the Risks and Why the Secrecy?

Alaska Railroad train engine

For the first time ever, liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been shipped by railroad in the U.S., prompting concerns about risks of accidents and a lack of state or federal regulation for the new and hazardous cargo.

The 40-foot long cryogenic tanks owned by the Japanese company Hitachi, built to be transported by rail, truck, and barge, will each carry more than 7,000 gallons of natural gas, which has been chilled down to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit, from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. The company Alaska Railroad will do the carrying.

Ruling by Little-Known Federal Agency Paves Way for Communities to Say No to Oil-by-Rail

Oil tank care behind a fence with sign reading 'Think first'

The community of Benicia, [California,] in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.” 

That was Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor talking to The Sacramento Bee about the vote by the Benicia City Council to deny a new oil-by-rail facility that oil company Valero was seeking.

But that vote would have been meaningless if not for a recent decision on September 20 by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that gave Benicia the legal authority to have some say over what happens within its borders. 

Why Do Oil Trains Derail More Often than Ethanol Trains?

Unit train of graffiti covered DOT-111 tank cars.

This is part two in a DeSmog investigative series examining why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010-2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severe consequences. Part one addressed train length as a potential factor in derailments

“Sloshing is an issue. It increases in-train forces. It would be like having a heavy box in the back of your SUV that is not tied down. If you have to slam on the brakes, what happens? The box slides forward into the back of the seat in front of it.” 

That was former locomotive engineer and rail safety consultant Bill Keppen describing the effects of “sloshing,” a phenomenon which happens when the liquid contents of incompletely filled rail tank cars start to move — or “slosh” — back and forth during transport. According to Keppen and others in the rail industry, that can potentially increase the chance of a train derailing. 

Bomb Trains: What Can We Learn From Shipping Ethanol to Improve Oil-By-Rail Safety?

Unit train of ethanol in Albany, NY

This article is the first in a series by DeSmog on the safety of shipping ethanol and oil by rail

From 2010 to 2015, the total number of tank cars moving ethanol by rail was more than 1.98 million. That's about 18 percent greater than the more than 1.68 million tank cars of crude oil shipped over the same time period.  

With more ethanol than crude oil moved by rail in recent years, why isn't anyone calling ethanol trains “bomb trains” too?

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So an oil train derailing at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph should be “expected” to have breached cars resulting in fiery explosions.

Current regulations allow those tank cars to continue rolling on the track carrying volatile Bakken crude oil and ethanol until 2025 with no modifications.

Yet industry lobbying group the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) has now requested the Federal Railroad Administration to essentially allow these jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars to remain on the tracks for decades beyond 2025.

This was just one of the troubling facts that came to light at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable on tank car safety on July 13th, and perhaps the one of greatest concern to anyone living in an oil train blast zone like Mosier, Oregon.  

Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be lag bolts that had sheared off resulting in the derailment. This once again raises concerns that the unit trains of oil are putting too much stress on the tracks due to their excessive weight and length. 

There is precedent for this issue according to rail consultant and former industry official Steven Ditmeyer. In the early 1990s, there was a similar problem with some double stacked container cars being too heavy for the infrastructure — because of overloaded containers — resulting in sheared rail spikes.

This sounds like a very similar circumstance to what was happening in the early 1990s with overloaded double stack container cars,” Ditmeyer told DeSmog.

So, since double stacked containers are currently in wide use but there are no longer derailment issues like in the 1990s, what changed?

Luck Rides The Rails: Another Near Miss with an "Insane" Bakken Oil Bomb Train

Luck was in abundance on Friday in Mosier, Oregon where the latest Bakken oil train derailed and erupted into flames near a 50-home residential area and a school. 

As Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton said, “Mosier really dodged a bullet in the last 24 hours.”

“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” Appleton said. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

It's a familiar story to those following the Bakken oil “bomb train” saga — luck.

If I had been there another second, it’d probably have killed me,” Bounds said. “Glass was flying everywhere behind me. The walls were caving in. I hadn’t run like that in years.”

That was Morris Bounds describing to The Spokesman Review how he barely escaped the derailing Bakken oil train that destroyed his home in Mount Carbon, West Virginia in February 2015. He literally saw the train derailing and ran out his front door as the train wiped out his house behind him. 

You don’t get much luckier than Morris Bounds. Or his wife, who happened to be in the hospital that day instead of at home. 

Later that year when another Bakken oil train derailed in a residential neighborhood in Watertown, Wisconsin but did not ignite, Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, declared, “We feel we got really lucky.”  

The Crude Oil "Bomb Train" Story: Profits Over Safety

I would agree with the opponents. This is not about saving jobs…This is about profits. But gee, what is wrong with profits?”

Those were the words of San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioner Jim Irving, explaining why he was voting for a project to build a rail spur to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery so that the refinery can receive oil by rail

It is a safe bet that Jim Irving hasn’t been to Lac-Megantic, where almost three years ago a very profitable oil train derailed and exploded in the middle of downtown. The immediate damage was 47 lives lost, a massive oil spill, and the burning and contamination of the town center. 

Nearly three years later, the downtown has yet to be rebuilt. And as we reported on DeSmog, there were many reasons the Lac-Megantic accident occurred. Averting any one of them could have prevented the accident. All were the result of corporate cost-cutting that put profits ahead of safety.

Nationwide Resistance To Crude Oil ‘Bomb Trains’ Gaining Momentum

The speed and scale with which the oil and rail industries created the North American oil-by-rail infrastructure was impressive. And amazingly under the radar for the most part — until the trains started derailing and blowing up — leading to articles with titles like “The Invisible Bomb Trains.
 
In 2014, Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney in northwest Washington, summed up why there hadn’t been opposition to the initial oil-by-rail terminals on the west coast, telling Reuters, “There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren't aware they were in formal permitting.”
 
But now the public knows. And despite public relations efforts by regulators and industry lobbyists, the public also knows that the crude oil “bomb trains” still pose a huge risk to communities along the rail lines.

There Will Be Blood - Oil Train Regulations Fail To Address Known Risks

Railroad rules have been written in blood.” This line was included in the annual report of the Commissioner of Railroads for the state of Michigan — in 1901. The idea was that safety rules were only implemented when enough blood had been spilled.

One hundred and fifteen years later, in an opinion piece on rail safety for CNN, rail expert Fred Failey essentially said the same thing, opening his piece with the statement, “The rules by which trains operate on American railroads were written in blood.”

When it comes to the rules regarding oil trains in America, many regulations that would improve safety have yet to be written. One reason is that, despite the multiple oil train crashes resulting in massive explosions in the past several years, there have been no fatalities in America.

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