Oil By Rail: Why Aren't Ethanol Trains Bomb Trains Too?

Since 2013 there have been 15 major derailments of trains carrying Bakken crude oil. Many of these accidents have resulted in large fires and explosions, earning these oil trains a reputation as “bomb trains.”

However, Bakken crude oil is not the only hazardous material being moved in large volumes by rail. Since 2010 more ethanol has been moved by rail than crude oil. Yet ethanol trains have not experienced the same high-profile derailments and explosions. In fact, crude oil trains are derailing at a rate double that of ethanol trains.

This DeSmog investigative series explores potential reasons Bakken oil trains are more likely than ethanol trains to derail, and includes looking at such factors as train length, sloshing of tank car contents, train weight, and the use of unit trains, which carry only oil or ethanol. 

The latest regulations governing the transport of flammable materials by rail allow the ethanol industry a significantly longer timeline for improving train safety compared to the rules for Bakken oil trains. Yet based on current ethanol industry trends and signs, North America will likely see an increase in derailments of ethanol trains — and perhaps create a new class of bomb trains at the same time.

In this series

An ethanol unit train of DOT-111 tank cars.
On March 8, a train pulling 80 tank cars of ethanol derailed in Providence, Rhode Island. Luckily,...
By Justin Mikulka, 21 Mar, 2017
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