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In this image made available by the City of Lynchburg, shows several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

Flames erupt from tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, Wednesday.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LUANN HUNT, CITY OF LYNCHBURG VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published April 30, 2014

A train carrying crude oil derailed Wednesday afternoon in Lynchburg, Virginia, sending flames and black plumes of smoke into the air near a railside eatery and pedestrian waterfront along the James River. Approximately 15 cars were involved in the derailment of the train, which was en route from Chicago to Virginia, according to the train's operator, CSX.

The fire was extinguished, the area evacuated, and no injuries had been reported as of Wednesday evening. But the pedestrian segment along the James River would be closed for "an unknown duration," according to a city statement, and an unknown quantity of oil had spilled from several breached cars into the river. Investigative teams from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were en route to the scene.

The Lynchburg incident is the latest of several oil train accidents in recent months. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania saw two derailments within weeks of each other: a CSX freight train carrying crude derailed in Philadelphia in January, nearly toppling into the Schuylkill River, and a Norfolk Southern train carrying Canadian crude wrecked and spilled between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of oil in western Pennsylvania in February.

And in North Dakota last December, a train carrying crude collided with another, engulfing 21 cars in flames and spilling an estimated 400,000 gallons of oil. (See related story: "North Dakota Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risk of Transporting Crude.")

Specter of Lac-Mégantic

No one was injured in those accidents, but the rapid rise of oil shipments is raising fears of an explosive derailment like the one that occurred last summer in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. That accident killed 47 people and leveled the town's center. Train service through Lac-Mégantic resumed in December, but the town has banned the transport of hazardous substances, including oil. (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.")

Last week, Canada rolled out tougher standards for shipment of hazardous materials by rail. Among other measures, it is tightening requirements for DOT-111 cars, a class of railcar known to regulators both in Canada and the United States to be vulnerable to leaks and explosion.

Newer or retrofitted cars are already being built to a new standard issued by the Canadian Transport Ministry in January that requires thicker steel and additional protective fittings. Those cars that do not meet the standard must be phased out or refitted within three years. About 65,000 cars fall into this category, and another 5,000 older, weaker DOT-111s are immediately prohibited from transporting crude in Canada.(See related story: "Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Train Rules.")

New U.S. Rail Regulations on the Way

Pressure is on officials in the United States to take similar action. Rail transport of crude in the U.S. increased 44 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone, according to the Association of American Railroads, and continues to rise. Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that the Department of Transportation was close to completing a new rulemaking proposal, including an update of tank car standards.

Foxx also said he was requesting from the oil industry, and not for the first time, "all available results and data regarding the variability and flammability of Bakken crude." The composition and volatility of oil coming out of both the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and out of the tar sands in Canada is just one of many issues regulators are attempting to understand better as North America's oil wealth reshapes the rail industry.

Also at issue is a budget to enforce new regulations, a point Foxx made last week. In an emergency order related to securing unattended trains, issued after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the Federal Railroad Administration acknowledged that it did not have the resources to inspect more than a small percentage of trains. (See related story: "Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude.")

17 comments
Karla Petermann
Karla Petermann

A lot of people have commented on Yahoo news that is a good reason to get the pipeline built, how crazy is that!

David Howell
David Howell

It's a good thing that oil wasn't traveling through a pipeline; just think of the catastrophic impact that oil would have had, on the environment, if it had been traveling through a pipeline!

Jack Wolf
Jack Wolf

Expect more and more KABOOMS as climate change continues to unfold.

karen ward
karen ward

This is nothing new.  Back in the day, I came from a railroad family.  My father was "a big deal", and went to many many derailments.  Most were chemical derails.  I was part of a group that wrote a handbook for dangerous chemicals.  It is far cheaper to haul by rail than truck.  And wouldn't you just love a truck to overturn on a major highway??  No difference.  Give the CSX or any other line a break.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

When the Exxon Valdez accident happened they required oil tankers to be double hulled. Why don't they do the same thing for rail cars. It seems like it would help prevent the oil from leaking if it were just damaged a little. It is just common sense!!!

alex tsban
alex tsban

This is nothing new,it could be Wheat ,Flax,Coal, Sulphur and a ton of other caustic chemicals,hell if you want I can post a picture of a train with torpedoes mounted on flat cars going through neighbourhoods,not to worry this happens everyday 

Nancy Titus
Nancy Titus

Especially crazy considering that the oil will be exported to other countries.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

"Give them a break" Are you kidding me!? I live about a mile and a half from tracks that have trains that go right through the middle of our town, And if this had happened here there would have been Hundreds if not Thousands of deaths!!! I realize that they cannot do anything about idiots that cross around a lowered gate and cause an accident. But if a train is going to be going through a densely populated area, And what train doesn't, Then they should take the greatest care possible and have the tracks checked on a regular basis to make sure that this doesn't keep happening! They have the technology already to inspect the tracks and to control the speed and even to stop a train remotely. There was definitely something that caused these trains to Derail, And it needs to stop before more people get killed. Just think about how many RR Crossings you go over in a typical day, Now wouldn't you want them to be safe as you are waiting for that train to clear the tracks? Just imagine how many people would be injured or killed while stopped at a crossing if it were to crash into them all!!

And I still think that ALL train cars that are carrying hazardous materials should be double hulled similar to oil tanker ships to prevent or minimize any leakage during a Derailment. I would sleep much better knowing that these steps were taken to keep us all safer.

Richard Webster
Richard Webster

@Dwayne LaGrou If you double hull tank cars you increase the tare weight thus lowering the net weight which would effectively double the amount of trains for crude. This would mean more locomotives, more crews, more train density and more track! The solution is to build a tank car that resists puncture. The main area are the ends that are prone to puncture by couplers as the train comes apart. Although all tank cars have double shelf couplers to prevent this it still happens and placing a steel plate at the ends of the cars helps. The problem as I see it is that the railroads are using tank cars that were not made for hazardous materials. Also, what are they putting in the crude to make it flow easier? Crude oil does not explode like that.

Doug Hornby
Doug Hornby

@Dwayne LaGrou Pull your head out Dwayne, your estimates of death and destruction, and your personal risk, do not make any real world sense.

Deny pipelines, and rail carriers will do more of what they do, carry oil. deny railroads, and then the trucks will be on your roads. Sheesh.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Well then in my humble opinion THE RR ARE IDIOTS !!!

Why don't we make the RR Exec's sleep in a tent next to one of these crash sites for a week. Then we can ask them what they think. Kinda like the judges that make the slum lords sleep in their own buildings!

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Except that I'm not getting rich from these RR Companies! Make THEM pay.

Rita Kenion
Rita Kenion

@Gerard Van der Leun @Dwayne LaGrou  Oil co. profits are up.  They can handle it or shut down. Making money is not the ONLY value that needs to be considered. Nobody told you about how the rich are getting richer? I have spent many hours in a Canoe on rivers of the eastern US (Chatooga, Catawba, French 

Broad, Natahala, Delaware, the Green, the New, Edisto, etc,etc.)   About forty yearsago I paddled the upper James, near Lynchburg. It was the clearest, cleanest river water I ever saw.  You could not tell how deep it was because river rocks that were 12 feet deep looked like they were a few feet deep. It looked highly polished.It was the most beautiful river I ever saw.  I will never forget it.  I am so sorry that you will never see it.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Are you REALLY telling me how many people live and work near the tracks that run through the middle of MY town?! We have between 20 and 30 trains go through our town per DAY and many are tankers.

There was a derailment of a Soybean Oil tanker and it caused a HUGE problem for the locals! My estimates were based on REAL numbers from the accidents that have happened here in the past. Something a large and dangerous as what happened in Lynchburg would have been a MAJOR DISASTER!!! And Yes my numbers are accurate.

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