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Photo of a train loaded crude oil passing through the Chicago area.

The amount of crude oil being transported on trains like this one, seen in Illinois and bound east, has increased 85-fold since 2006. Recent accidents involving oil trains have raised safety concerns.

Photograph by Bill Meier

Marianne Lavelle

National Geographic

Published January 17, 2014

When a freight train rolls through Barrington, Illinois, gates with flashing lights lower to block all four of the village's cross-town thoroughfares—often at the same time. It happens 20 times a day.

And as more and more of those trains have become "unit trains"—carrying only one type of freight, crude oil—residents have been voicing concerns about matters far more urgent than the time they lose idling at grade crossings. "People are seeing those black cars and they know there's something different going on," said village president Karen Darch. (See related blog post: "Eight Steps for Safer Oil Trains Eyed by U.S. Safety Officials")

Barrington, a suburb of about 10,000 people 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Chicago, has been leading a push for tougher U.S. safety regulations on the nation's sharply increasing oil train traffic. Some tangible action on that plea came Thursday, when U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx held a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C., to press oil and rail company executives to come up with a plan for safer operation of oil trains.

Foxx gave the executives 30 days to produce recommendations to address a host of safety issues, from weak tank cars to the lack of real-time data on freight risks for emergency responders. The unusual meeting indicated that President Barack Obama's administration is seeking immediate steps to boost safety while the department works on new regulations that could be a year away.

For more than 20 years, safety investigators have been warning that the majority of  tank cars used to haul flammable liquids on North American railroads are prone to puncture. And with sharply increasing production of both petroleum products and ethanol in the past five years, there is now an "unprecedented volume of flammable liquids currently in rail commerce," said the investigative agency, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a recent regulatory filing.

Proposals for new rules languished until last July 6, when an unattended crude-oil train rolled down a grade at high speed into Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where it derailed and exploded, leveling the center of the small lakeside town and killing 47 people. (See related stories: "Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause" and "Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.")

Since then, there have been at least four other fiery oil train derailments involving the same suspect tank cars in North America, including two in just the past three weeks. Some 2,400 residents near Fargo, North Dakota, were forced to flee their homes on December 30 when an oil train collided with a train carrying grain. (See related, "N.D. Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude.") Then, on January 7, a train carrying crude oil and propane derailed in northwest New Brunswick, Canada; authorities evacuated 45 homes and barred residents from the site for four days while the fire burned.

Although no one was hurt in either incident, industry observers believe the most recent accidents have increased pressure on regulators, both in the United States and Canada.

A tanker train carrying crude oil burns after derailing in western Alabama
The November derailment of a tanker train carrying crude in western Alabama was one of at least four oil train accidents in the last three months.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL CASTLE, ABC 33/40 VIA AP

Action can't come soon enough for the train towns that have watched up close as crude oil shipments on U.S. Class 1 railroads, the major freight lines, increased 85-fold since 2006, from 4,700 carloads to 400,000 in 2013, according to a rail industry regulatory filing. In Barrington, Darch notes that many of her constituents, including her own husband, rely on trains: the commuter line that takes them into Chicago each day on separate tracks that intersect the newly busy freight line, also at a grade crossing. "It's ironic," she said. "The town has grown up on the rail and we don't want to die on the rail."

Unsafe at Any Speed?

The most controversial issue before the U.S. regulators is whether to order retrofits or an aggressive phaseout of the rail tank cars called DOT-111s. As early as 1991, the NTSB warned the cars were inadequate for flammable materials and were unable to withstand the forces of an accident, even in a train traveling at slow speeds.

There are stronger railroad tank cars in service, but they are used to carry pressurized liquids, like liquefied petroleum gas and chlorine. The DOT-111s, in contrast, have become workhorses hauling a wide range of liquids, from corn syrup and vegetable oil to nonflammable hazardous liquids like caustic soda and liquid fertilizers. And an estimated one-third of them are now carrying cargo that could catch fire.

The DOT-111 problem burst into view on June 19, 2009, when a train hauling ethanol derailed and exploded in Cherry Valley, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. The blast and fire killed a passenger in one of the cars stopped at the grade crossing, injured seven other people, forced evacuation of 600 homes, and caused $8 million in damages. Especially haunting: 44-year-old Zoila Tellez died trying to flee, but could not outrun the fireball.

The NTSB determined that railroad operating practices, including problems with track maintenance and inspection programs, caused the accident. But it concluded that the severity of the accident was due to flaws in the DOT-111.

After Cherry Valley, the rail industry adopted a new voluntary standard for the cars. Since 2011, new DOT-111 tank cars have been built with greater puncture resistance, thicker tank material, and improved pressure valves. But after Lac-Mégantic, the rail industry said more improvements were needed.

In a November filing before federal regulators, the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association urged that all existing DOT-111 tank cars be retrofitted or quickly phased out. For the new (post-2011) cars, the railroads said proposed improvements—steel jackets, head shields, and top-fitting protections—could cut the risk of an accidental spill in half. For older cars, the rail industry said it would cut the risk by 75 percent.

In a rail industry quirk, it is not the railroads that own the tank cars. The majority of cars are owned by leasing companies, who then lease them to the rail customers—the oil and ethanol industries. The initial cost for an overhaul, then, would fall first on the leasing companies, who would then pass the cost along to the oil and ethanol industries. The Railway Supply Institute, representing railcar builders and leasing companies, estimates retrofitting the fleet would cost more than $1 billion.

The oil industry has strongly opposed a forced retrofit or phaseout of old DOT-111s. Such a move would "have the broadest-reaching consequences that the rail industry has ever faced," the American Petroleum Institute (API), said in a December filing to regulators.

API argued that the DOT-111s "are safe under normal operating conditions," and regulators should instead focus on railroad maintenance and operation. API noted that broken rails and welds cause the majority of derailments, and that human error also is an important factor. "The best way to limit the impact of a derailment is to prevent a derailment in the first place," said API.

The oil industry group said retrofitting would strain rail repair shops, which it said already are operating at capacity. Forcing at least 50,000 older tank cars into the shops would have the unintended consequence of backlogging the building of newer cars built to meet the 2011 voluntary standards, the trade group said. (API also argued that the 15,000 or so newer cars should be allowed to stay in service without retrofit, contrary to the rail industry's argument.)

Adding to the logistical challenge of an overhaul, API said, is the fact that many U.S. railroad car manufacturers have gone out of business.

The potential for new safety regulations to bottleneck booming North American crude oil production is a far greater concern for the oil industry than the cost of new tank hardware, observers say. Rail has served as handmaiden to North Dakota's rise to number 2 (behind Texas) among U.S. oil-producing states, getting oil to refineries despite lack of pipeline capacity in the prairie. December figures show 69 percent of the crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale is being sent by rail, up from 28 percent in the spring of 2012. And Bakken oil production has roughly doubled over that time to close to one million barrels per day.

"The implication for upstream production . . . and railcar leasing companies is hard to miss," said Washington, D.C.-based energy policy analyst Kevin Book of Clearview Energy Partners in a report for his clients, also noting oil prices could be affected. "A regulation mandating immediate retrofits or phaseouts has potential to significantly constrain capacity out of the Bakken (where a majority of crude travels by rail), and limit ethanol shipments, too."

It also is a concern for producers in the remote oil sands of Alberta, Canada, who are increasingly turning to rail. In fact, in its environmental impact statement on the controversial proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline linking Alberta producers with Gulf of Mexico refineries, the U.S. State Department concluded that if the pipeline weren't built, the oil would get to market anyway—by train. (See related story and interactive map: "Keystone XL Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma" and "Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.")

At the Crossroads

A high-stakes regulatory battle affecting the flow of North American oil wasn't on the radar anyone—and certainly not for Barrington, Illinois—in October 2007. That's when the big railroad Canadian National (CN) initiated its purchase of the smaller Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railway line that arcs around Chicago from Waukegan, Illinois, to Gary, Indiana. CN's idea was to route trains around the congested city hub. For Barrington, it has meant an increase from three freight trains a day through town to 20.

Map showing Barrington, Illinois

"The irony is that they moved the traffic from a part of downtown (Chicago) that had a lot of overpasses and underpasses," said Richard Streeter, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Barrington and other midwestern rail towns. "That's not the case on the old EJ&E." In fact, the trains travel directly in the path of cars and trucks at more than 130 at-grade crossings. Barrington and more than a dozen other communities along the line fought the purchase, raising an array of noise, traffic, and safety issues. But U.S. regulators approved the deal with the caveat that separations be built at two of the grade crossings.

Four months after CN's purchase of the EJ&E was finalized, the communities were shaken by news of the fatal ethanol train derailment—a CN train on another line—just an hour to the west.

Soon after the NTSB's findings that the DOT-111 contributed to the Cherry Valley tragedy, on April 3, 2012, Barrington and neighboring rail towns, called the TRAC coalition, filed a petition with U.S. safety regulators, seeking an overhaul of the DOT-111 fleet and real-time information sharing with emergency responders on hazardous car contents. Barrington's Darch said not much happened with the request for action, though, until the oil train disaster at Lac-Mégantic.

"That literally was a firestorm that ignited the whole debate again," said Darch, who recently visited the Canadian town to meet and talk to officials who are still grappling with the aftermath. "It really was such a tragedy that it no longer could it be ignored, as it had been for over 20 years."

In the fall, the U.S. Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) started the process of acting on  Barrington's proposal and several other long-standing requests for regulatory action on flammable hazards on trains, including four from the NTSB. Even while the agency was accepting comments, two more fiery DOT-111 accidents occurred in North America, on October 19, in Gainford, Alberta, and on November 7, when a shipment of crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Aliceville, Alabama, resulting in a large spill and fire.

Darch said that for towns like Barrington, it will not be enough to have standards for newly built tank cars to be stronger. The older tank cars continue to be a "weak link" that threatens the integrity of all tank cars in an accident, she said.

"The status quo is clearly intolerable for any community that has the misfortune to be on the losing end of fate," said Barrington and the TRAC coalition in their comments filed with PHMSA, likening their plight to "a game of Russian roulette."

"However, it is not the shippers or railroads or leasing companies looking down the barrel of the DOT-111 revolver," they said. "It is the communities that have absolutely no power to get up and walk away from the danger."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

9 comments
Pete Winder
Pete Winder

Find an alternative fuel and stop making massive profits!!

joseph yechout
joseph yechout

Build ,, the pipeline,, Or  Canada  will sell  to China

Which the far Left in this administration  want anyway. 

Deconstruct this nation as Obmer's science Czar  recommended.

Gary Conn
Gary Conn

We have dedicated so much rail to industrial supply and development.  When can we build rail systems for travel and commuting instead, like cities and in Europe?

juliyya vandenburg
juliyya vandenburg

Those DOT-111 oil barrels travel west as well as east. Trains with over 100 of them go north along the Puget Sound waterfront every day, passing through Edmonds, Washington on the way to refineries on the west coast. 

Stephen Whitmore
Stephen Whitmore

No more pipelines.  Make fossil fuel industry pay the full environmental cost of its products and end it's subsidies.  Increase the incentives for clean renewable solar, wind, geothermal, and wave energy production.  Modernize the electric grid and nationalize - like a national highway system for electricity.  Modernize the regulations for allowing private individuals and businesses to feed their excess energy production into the grid.  Greatly increase funding for energy related research.  Duh!

bob bold
bob bold

@Pete WinderSounds like a plan. Why don't you follow up on that and make an massive profit in the process.

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