Oil By Rail: Following the Bomb Trains

The success of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) created an oil boom from fields in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation. Without the usual infrastructure such as pipelines or ports in place to move this glut of oil, a new oil-by-rail industry was born to fill that role.

However, as more and longer trains are shipping increasing amounts of Bakken crude oil, North America has seen another consequence of this new industry: train derailments resulting in massive fires and explosions. As a result, these trains have earned a new nickname: bomb trains.

What is at the root of these accidents? How can the industry improve its safety record? Are regulators up to the task?

Check out our ongoing coverage of oil trains.

Main image: Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment. Credit: Sûreté du Québec police, CC BY-SA 1.0

In this series

Derailed oil train cars still smoking after the fire in Mount Carbon, West Virginia
When President Donald Trump signed executive orders pushing for the approval and expedited review...
By Justin Mikulka, 15 Feb, 2017
Over and over again, attendees of the 2016 Energy by Rail Conference heard that “LNG by rail is...
By Justin Mikulka, 11 Jan, 2017
Lac-Megantic's downtown before the oil train disaster.
Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train...
By Justin Mikulka, 21 Dec, 2016
In July 2015, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Culbertson, Montana resulting in an oil...
By Justin Mikulka, 28 Nov, 2016
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...
By Justin Mikulka, 28 Sep, 2016
DOT-111 as part of ethanol unit train
This is the third article in a series looking at why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol...
By Justin Mikulka, 19 Sep, 2016
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...
By Justin Mikulka, 15 Sep, 2016
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...
By Justin Mikulka, 14 Sep, 2016
In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA...
By Justin Mikulka, 21 Jul, 2016
The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be...
By Justin Mikulka, 7 Jul, 2016
“I would agree with the opponents. This is not about saving jobs…This is about profits. But gee,...
By Justin Mikulka, 20 May, 2016
A year ago, when Federal regulators announced new rules for “high hazard” trains moving crude oil...
By Justin Mikulka, 9 May, 2016
In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the report “Rigged Justice - How Weak Enforcement...
By Justin Mikulka, 11 Mar, 2016
Earlier this year the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry’s top lobbying group,...
By Justin Mikulka, 4 Mar, 2016
In the recent New York Times article “The Wreck of Amtrak 188” Federal Railroad Administration...
By Justin Mikulka, 16 Feb, 2016
The speed and scale with which the oil and rail industries created the North American oil-by-rail...
By Justin Mikulka, 11 Feb, 2016
“Railroad rules have been written in blood.” This line was included in the annual report of the...
By Justin Mikulka, 17 Jan, 2016
In September 2014, five individuals — now known as the Delta 5 — blockaded a train transporting...
By Justin Mikulka, 10 Jan, 2016
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s recent petition to the Pipeline and Hazardous...
By Justin Mikulka, 6 Dec, 2015
Derailment by Sarah Zarling
On November 7th, a train carrying ethanol in DOT-111 tank cars derailed in Wisconsin, resulting in...
By Justin Mikulka, 2 Dec, 2015
oil train conference
On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national...
By Justin Mikulka, 25 Nov, 2015
The worst onshore oil spill in United States history was the Kalamazoo River tar sands pipeline...
By Justin Mikulka, 1 Nov, 2015
CSX is one of the major rail companies that is profiting from the oil-by-rail boom led by North...
By Justin Mikulka, 2 Oct, 2015
In June of 2014, a representative of oil-by-rail giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) attended...
By Justin Mikulka, 1 Oct, 2015
Oil train in Seattle by Brendan DeMelle
Since the tragic Bakken oil train accident that extinguished 47 lives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in...
By Brendan DeMelle, 17 Sep, 2015
A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California...
By Justin Mikulka, 7 Sep, 2015
oil train credit Justin Mikulka
Roosevelt County chief deputy sheriff Corey Reum was one of the first responders to the recent...
By Justin Mikulka, 23 Jul, 2015
As documented on DeSmog, the new oil-by-rail regulations contain major concessions to the oil and...
By Justin Mikulka, 22 Jul, 2015
oil train
The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t...
By Justin Mikulka, 17 Jul, 2015
As oil train protests continue across North America to mark the two-year anniversary of the Lac-...
By Justin Mikulka, 9 Jul, 2015
“It’s corporate greed versus the common good, whether it’s rail safety or climate change.” Those...
By Justin Mikulka, 6 Jul, 2015
Although insisting the industry is not to blame, several of the oil companies involved in the fatal...
By Justin Mikulka, 21 Jun, 2015
Today at the annual North American Rail Shippers Association, Carl Ice, president of rail company...
By Justin Mikulka, 27 May, 2015
In what came as a welcome surprise to activists in Albany, New York, the New York State Department...
By Justin Mikulka, 24 May, 2015
The latest oil train derailment and explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota is another frightening...
By Justin Mikulka, 20 May, 2015
The long-awaited oil-by-rail regulations released today are basically a guidebook for the oil and...
By Justin Mikulka, 1 May, 2015
A seemingly innocuous email about two people getting coffee in August of 2014 helps shed light on...
By Justin Mikulka, 30 Apr, 2015
“The system is fundamentally broken.” Those were the words of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) during an...
By Justin Mikulka, 23 Apr, 2015
With the recent run of exploding oil train accidents, it isn’t surprising that the rail industry...
By Justin Mikulka, 15 Mar, 2015
With the first crash and explosion of a unit train of tar sands oil in Canada in February, we...
By Justin Mikulka, 9 Mar, 2015
A month ago there was a close call for the oil-by-rail industry. As part of the Cromnibus bill that...
By Justin Mikulka, 18 Feb, 2015
Vintage effect applied to fast moving freight train
“I just want to make sure that we are all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry...
By Justin Mikulka, 13 Feb, 2015