Molly Celler, Mary K Johnson and Amelia Withrow 

The increase in oil-by-rail is unprecedented, growing from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 435,560 carloads by 2013, roughly the equivalent of 300 million barrels. The oil industry is pushing to transport even more via proposed terminals in the Pacific Northwest (See Vancouver Oil and Hoquiam Oil). The large amounts of harmful, flammable crude oil being transported by rail are a threat to the environment and communities oil trains pass through multiple times per day across North America. Following the catastrophic 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a safety alert warning that Bakken Crude “may be more flammable” than traditional heavy crude oil (Frittelli, 2014). 

Despite an increasing number of accidents, the federal government is unwilling to impose regulations that will prevent more fiery accidents from occurring over the next ten years. According to a report from The Register Guard in Oregon "...regulators continue to fail to address the main causes of fiery oil train accidents ­— the excessive weight of oil trains that often include 100 tank cars, deteriorating track infrastructure and unwarranted train speeds." (Margolis, 2016)

Map of major crude-by-rail accidents since 2012, and the communities who are fighting back. (Credit: Earth Justice)


Major Oil-Train Derailment Accidents

An oil train derailed on July 5, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, causing an explosion that resulted in 47 deaths. The blast was over half-mile wide, and destroyed over 30 building and surrounding areas. The Quebec provincial government issued a C$409 million cleanup cost from the disaster (Annis). One of the surviving residents of the town shared this account with the first reporters allowed on the scene: 

“The Boston Marathon bomb was just a few firecrackers compared to this,” fumes Pierre L’Heureux. “This was like a nuclear bomb... It feels like we’re in a war zone,” she says, tears streaming down her face. Behind her, a generator powering the trailers of search crews rumbles behind a black-shrouded fence that blocks the downtown from access or sight. “My six-year-old son said he wishes he had a magic wand to bring all these dead back to life.” (Kuitenbrouwer, 2013).

Another early report stated:

Authorities believe about 50 people died when fire consumed much of the downtown core in the early hours of an otherwise perfect Saturday morning. Dozens were inside the popular Musi-Café bar, while others were sleeping in their apartments. The fire was so intense it melted entire lampposts and left rocks along the shore looking like lava (Hamilton, 2013).

A freight train carrying oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, and between 12 to 14 oil tankers exploded by the James River. That means there were open oil tankers leaking out into the river that could cause harm to the drinking water and the environment (Koronwski).

“The river was on fire,” said deputy city manager Bonnie Svrcek. “We are very fortunate that the cars that derailed derailed toward the river, instead of toward the city,” said Svrcek, adding that three rail cars fell into the river but no buildings caught fire and no injuries were reported. Virginia environmental and emergency officials were on site, and federal safety officials were en route, she said."

“New York and all the states subject to this crude oil boom are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of derailment, spill, fire, or explosion, as demonstrated by” recent catastrophic incidents, Cuomo wrote (Laris & Hermann, 2014).

After a June 2016 derailment of an oil train in the Columbia Gorge at Mosier, Oregon, the local fire chief called shipping Bakken crude oil "insane" (Templeton).

The Lac-Mégantic derailment site following the accident. (Credit:  Transportation Safety Board of Canada )

The Lac-Mégantic derailment site following the accident. (Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

Approximate route of the tank cars on MMA-002, which travelled through Toronto and Montréal en route to Lac-Mégantic.  (Credit:   Transportation Safety Board of Canada  )

Approximate route of the tank cars on MMA-002, which travelled through Toronto and Montréal en route to Lac-Mégantic. (Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada)

July 5, 2013 – Lac-Mégantic, Quebec
On July 5, 2013, a train with 72 loaded tank cars of crude oil from North Dakota moving from Montreal, Quebec, to St. John, New Brunswick, stopped at Nantes, Quebec, at 11:00 pm. The operator and sole railroad employee aboard the train secured it and departed, leaving the train on shortline track with a descending grade of about 1.2%. At about 1:00 am, it appears the train began rolling down the descending grade toward the town of Lac-Mégantic, about 30 miles from the U.S. border. Near the center of town, 63 tank cars derailed, resulting in multiple explosions and subsequent fires. There were 47 fatalities, many of them in a folk music club, and extensive damage to the town. 2,000 people were evacuated. The initial determination was that the braking force applied to the train was insufficient to hold it on the 1.2% grade and that the crude oil released was more volatile than expected (Frittelli, 2014). 

October 19, 2013 – Gainford, Alberta
Nine tank cars of propane and four tank cars of crude oil from Canada derailed as a Canadian National train was entering a siding at 22 miles per hour. About 100 residents were evacuated. Three of the propane cars burned, but the tank cars carrying oil were pushed away and did not burn. No one was injured or killed (Frittelli, 2014).

A chronological track of the Aliceville Alabama train wreck where thousands of gallons of toxic Bakken Crude oil was lost in a wetland just 4 miles out of Aliceville. (Credit: John L. Wathen)

November 8, 2013 – Aliceville, Alabama
A train hauling 90 cars of crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery near Mobile, Alabama, derailed on a section of track through a wetland near Aliceville, Alabama. Thirty tank cars derailed and some dozen of these burned. No one was injured or killed. The derailment occurred on a shortline railroad’s track that had been inspected a few days earlier. The train was traveling under the speed limit for this track (Frittelli, 2014).

December 30, 2013 – Casselton, North Dakota
An eastbound BNSF Railway train hauling 106 tank cars of crude oil struck a westbound train carrying grain that shortly before had derailed onto the eastbound track. Some 34 cars from both trains derailed, including 20 cars carrying crude, which exploded and burned for over 24 hours. About 1,400 residents of Casselton were evacuated but no injuries were reported (Frittelli, 2014).

January 7, 2014 – Plaster Rock, New Brunswick
17 cars of a mixed train hauling crude oil, propane, and other goods derailed likely due to a sudden wheel or axle failure. Five tank cars carrying crude oil caught fire and exploded. The train reportedly was delivering crude from Manitoba and Alberta to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. About 45 homes were evacuated but no injuries were reported (Frittelli, 2014).

January 20, 2014 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
7 cars of a 101-car CSX train, including 6 carrying crude oil, derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River. No injuries and no leakage were reported, but press photographs showed two cars, one a tanker, leaning over the river (Frittelli, 2014). 

February 13, 2014 – Vandergrift, Pennsylvania
21 tank cars of a 120-car train derailed outside Pittsburgh. Nineteen of the derailed cars were carrying crude oil from western Canada, and four of them released product. There was no fire or injuries (Frittelli, 2014). 

April 30, 2014 – Lynchburg, Virginia
15 cars in a crude oil train derailed in the downtown area of this city. Three cars caught fire, and some cars derailed into a river along the tracks. The immediate area surrounding the derailment was evacuated. No injuries were reported (Frittelli, 2014). 

LaSalle, Colorado train derailment. (Credit:  CBS Denver )

LaSalle, Colorado train derailment. (Credit: CBS Denver)

May 9, 2014 – LaSalle, Colorado
This oil train car derailment near LaSalle, Colorado polluted area groundwater with toxic levels of benzene. Environmental Protection Agency records from July show benzene measurements as high as 144 parts per billion near the crash site. Five parts per billion is considered the safe limit. Federal accident records also show six Union Pacific tankers ripped apart from the train and flipped into a ditch due to a “track misalignment caused by a soft roadbed.” One of the tankers cracked and spilled approximately 7,000 gallons of Niobrara crude, according to the EPA (Halsne, 2014).

Smoke rises from the scene of a train derailment Thursday, March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. (Credit:  Mike Burley/Telegraph Herald )  

Smoke rises from the scene of a train derailment Thursday, March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. (Credit: Mike Burley/Telegraph Herald)

March 5, 2015 – Galena, Illinois
A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed around 1:20 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, said Jo Daviess County Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Moser. Six of the BNSF Railway train's 105 cars derailed. Two of those cars burst into flames. No injuries have been reported (staff, reports, & Tribune, 2015).

May 6, 2015 –  Heimdal, North Dakota

The town of Heimdal, North Dakota, was evacuated after an oil train went off the tracks about 1.5 miles from the town and started on fire around 7:30 a.m. Heimdal is in between Harvey and New Rockford, North Dakota (KVLY, 2015).

July 17, 2015 – Culbertson, Montana
Four tank cars leaked an estimated 35,000 gallons of oil after a train hauling fuel from North Dakota derailed in rural northeastern Montana, authorities said. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train was bound for Anacortes, Washington, when it derailed about 5 miles east of the small town of Culbertson, near the North Dakota border, officials said (BROWN & VOLZ, 2015).

Mosier Derailment. (Credit:  Columbia Riverkeeper )

Mosier Derailment. (Credit: Columbia Riverkeeper)

June 3, 2016 – Mosier, Oregon

Eleven cars from a 96-car Union Pacific train jumped the tracks west of the small city about 12:20 p.m., next to Rock Creek that feeds the Columbia River. Several rail cars caught on fire and at least one released oil.  A "light sheen" of oil on the river was reported on June 4 (Hernandez, 2016).

Oil Train Precautions

In 2014, the Department of Transportation issued what is called an “emergency order” requiring any train carrying 1 million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken shale formation to provide forewarning or notification of the train’s movement (Foxx) (See Oil Train Issues). Many officials have called for the replacement of older DOT-111 railcars with newer, thicker models. Explosions in Lynchburg and Mosier included some of the newer railcars, phasing out the old cars is not a guarantee of safety. After a July 24, 2015 derailment in Seattle (which did not result in a fire), the City Council took several steps to urge federal regulators to change oil-train transport policy around trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil.

A BNSF investigator photographs the scene where a locomotive and four cars carrying crude oil went off the track beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood early this morning. (Credit: Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

A BNSF investigator photographs the scene where a locomotive and four cars carrying crude oil went off the track beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood early this morning. (Credit: Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle City Council members and Mayor Ed Murray co-sponsored Oil Train Resolution #31504:

Section 1. The City of Seattle strongly urges Washington State to adopt legislation requiring disclosure of the volumes, types of petroleum, petroleum products, and petroleum derivatives; transportation routes; and the frequency and duration of transfers of petroleum, so that the state and local communities can be fully informed of and plan for the risks posed by the transport of petroleum by rail.
Section 2. The City of Seattle strongly urges the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to increase federal tank car design and operation regulations for petroleum product shipments and aggressively phase out older-model tank cars used to move flammable liquids that are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements.
Section 3. The City of Seattle strongly urges the Washington Department of Ecology and the Military Department Emergency Management Division, in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coast Guard and local government emergency response entities, to assess the impact to public safety, the environment, the economy, and traffic of petroleum transport by rail through Seattle and the State of Washington.
Section 4. The City of Seattle requests that the Governor of Washington, the Washington Department of Ecology, the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, and any other relevant state agencies refrain from permitting projects that would expand the capacity for petroleum export out of the state or otherwise increase the number of trains carrying petroleum through Seattle and other Washington communities until the cumulative environmental and safety impacts of these projects are studied and addressed.
Section 5. The City of Seattle requests that any railroad company that operates rail lines adjacent to Seattle’s sporting arenas, stadiums, and beneath the City in underground tunnels consider restrictions on the shipment of petroleum products along those routes until adequate study by relevant state, local, and federal government agencies have determined that the transport of petroleum by rail meets established public safety and environmental protection standards.
Section 6. The City Council requests that the Seattle Fire Department and Seattle Office of Emergency Management to review and, if needed, update the City’s incident response plans for the increasing risk imposed by the transport of petroleum by rail with a report back to the relevant committees of the City Council by June 20, 2014.

Close to the Blast Zone?

According to research conducted by ForestEthics using US Census Data and Google Maps, 25 million Americans live within the "Blast Zone" or 1 mile of railroad tracks carrying dangerous flammable cargo (Valentine, 2014). During the journey the lighter gas liquids separate from the oil and become gaseous, creating an explosive propane-butane "blanket" over the surface of the heavier oil. If one of these cars should rupture and the gaseous content be put in contact with the air outside in the presence of a spark, the rail car will go up in flame. Cars next to it are vulnerable to ignition from the outer heat, creating the potential for a fiery chain-reaction, like the ones in Lac-Mégantic, Aliceville, and Lynchburg. The length of these trains can extend to a mile and a half, hauling over 100 cars of this explosive cargo, roughly 30,000 gallons per car (Stern & Jones, 2015).

Oil train routes across North America and the 25 million Americans living within the "Blast Zone," one mile, of the tracks. (Credit:  ForestEthics )

Oil train routes across North America and the 25 million Americans living within the "Blast Zone," one mile, of the tracks. (Credit: ForestEthics)

Crude Oil

More commonly known as petroleum, crude oil is a liquid found beneath the earth’s surface that is made up of hydrocarbons, organic compounds and small amounts of metals (Oilprice). Petroleum products are everywhere, including transportation fuels, fuels and oils to heat houses and for electric generation, to form the asphalts on our roads, the compound to make chemicals for medications, all kinds of plastics and in the synthetic materials in clothing. Petroleum is in just about everything we use today (EIA). 

Early American Oil Trains 

Trains have been used for many decades to transport oil. Early pioneers of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania developed the first methods of transporting crude oil from the well to the refinery. Teamsters with horse-drawn carriages were hired by oil drillers to haul barrels from the drill site to rivers, railroads, or refineries. Because the journey from well to refinery was over, tough terrain, teamsters controlled the price of transport and drove up the price. Teamsters became known for sabotaging plans for other methods. The first railroad to Pennsylvania’s Oil Region arrived in 1862 called the Oil Creek Railroad. The single track line stretched 27 miles. In 1865 the Densmore brothers designed a tank car special made to transport oil by train that could carry 80 to 90 barrels of oil per tank car. Over the next several decades more oil car designs were made to maximize transport per car per train ride (Oil150).

Bakken Oil Formation 

The Bakken Formation occupies about 200,000 square miles and underlies parts of Montana and North Dakota, and is the largest shale oil formation in the United States (See Bakken Oil Shale Basin ). Bakken oil is a type of “light sweet crude,” a high-quality oil that is easier to refine into commercial products than other oils, but also easier to ignite. Bakken production took off in 2008 with the new drilling technology of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and started producing around 150,000 barrels per day. Today, North Dakota alone is producing 768,000 barrels per day and has over 3,000 wells working. Note that the grand majority, or 63%, of oil is transported from the Bakken formation by train (Energyandcapital).


Annis, R. (2014, June 23). What happened in last summer's oil train disaster in Quebec that killed 47. TruthOut. 

Bailey, D. (2014, June 18). It could happen here: The exploding threat of crude by rail in California. Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Bakken Oil Formation. (n.d.) Bakken oil formation. Energy & Capital.

Rown, M., & Volz, M. (2015, July 17). 35, 000 gallons of oil spill after Montana train derailment. The OC Register.

Foxx, A. R. (2014, May 07). Emergency order. Department of Transportation. 

Frittelli, J. (2014). U.S. Rail transportation of crude oil: Background and issues for congress. Congressional Research Service.

Hamilton, G. (2013, July 16). Media get first up-close look at scale of Lac-Mégantic destruction “it would be impossible to believe.” The National Post.

Halsne, C. (2014, September 23). Derailed: Railroad delays first responders on riverside oil spill. KDVR, Fox Denver.

Hernandez, T., Oregonian, T., & OregonLive. (2016, June 4). Oil train derails near Mosier in Oregon’s Columbia river gorge. Oregon Live.

Kuitenbrouwer, P. (2013, July 12). “It feels like we’re in a war zone”: A week of devastation in Lac-Megantic Quebec. The National Post

KVLY (2015, May 6). Heimdal, North Dakota evacuated after train Derailment. Valley News Live.

Margolis, J. (2016, July 26). New regulations won’t prevent “bomb trains.”  The Register Guard.

Stern, M., & Jones, S. (2015, January 7). BOOM. The Weather Channel.

Templeton, Amelia (2016, June 4). Mosier Fire Chief Calls Shipping Bakken Crude Oil By Rail 'Insane'. Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Valentine, K. (2014, July 9). MAP: 25 Million Americans live within the ‘blast zone’ of an oil train explosion. Think Progress. 

Seattle city council resolution index. (2014). Oil Train Resolution #31504. Seattle City Council.

staff, T., reports, wire, & Tribune, C. (2015, March 6). BNSF: Oil train derailment near Galena involved safer tank carsChicago Tribune.