National Geographic News
Photo of CSX tanker crash in Virginia.

An oil train derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, last April spilled up to 25,000 gallons into the James River. U.S. officials are proposing tougher standards for the nation's growing oil-by-rail transport.

Photograph by Parker Michels-Boyce, News & Daily Advance/AP

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published July 23, 2014

After a string of fiery oil train accidents in recent months, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on Wednesday proposed new rules seeking to address safety concerns over the increasing use of rail to transport crude oil.

The long-promised standards call for a phaseout or retrofit of older rail cars known as DOT-111s, which are known to be vulnerable to leaks and explosions, within two years; new speed and operational restrictions; and a stricter system for testing and classifying mined gases and liquids, among other measures. (Related: "Oil Train Derails in Lynchburg, Virginia.")

"The volume of crude oil being produced and shipped by rail in North America simply did not exist that long ago," wrote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the DOT's website. "As the facts have changed on the ground so rapidly in the past few years, we must also change how we move this energy." (Related: "N.D. Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude.")

Foxx noted that between 2008 and last year, the number of rail-carloads of oil shipped in the United States jumped by more than 4,300 percent. The jump has been driven by a spike in U.S. oil production from North Dakota's Bakken shale and a shortage of pipeline capacity.

The Department of Transportation also noted that the risks of transporting oil from North Dakota are elevated because the oil tends to travel distances of 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) or more to coastal refineries. (Related: "Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude.")

Also at issue is the particular composition of crude coming out of the Bakken shale. In a report accompanying the rulemaking announcement, the Department of Transportation noted that oil coming out of the Bakken shale "has a higher gas content, higher vapor pressure, lower flash point and boiling point and thus a higher degree of volatility than most other crudes in the U.S., which correlates to increased ignitability and flammability." (Related: "Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Train Rules.")

It was an oil train filled with Bakken crude that led to tragedy last summer in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a train comprising 72 tanker cars derailed in the town center. The ensuing explosion leveled the town and killed 47 people. Subsequent crashes have occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia; Casselton, North Dakota; Aliceville, Alabama; and other locations in the United States. (Related: "Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause" and "Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.")

Canada has also announced new oil train safety rules aimed at improving railway accountability and calling for a phaseout of the older DOT-111 cars.

The rail industry issued a statement saying it was still studying the details but welcomed the regulatory action, which will be opened to a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized. "This long-anticipated rulemaking from DOT provides a much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the U.S.," Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward Hamberger said.

Railroads typically do not own the tank cars used for oil transport-leasing companies contract the cars out to the oil industry. The American Petroleum Institute said Wednesday that it was reviewing the new rule, but it also labeled as "speculation" the DOT's assertion that Bakken crude is more flammable than other crudes.

"The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks," said API President and CEO Jack Gerard. "Multiple studies have shown that Bakken crude is similar to other crudes."

The Department of Transportation report said that the agency relied on "months of unannounced inspections, testing, and analysis" to arrive at its conclusions about the qualities of Bakken crude. (Related: "Eight Steps for Safer Oil Trains Eyed by U.S. Safety Officials.")

Karen Darch, village president of Barrington, Illinois, a Chicago suburb regularly traversed by oil train traffic that has led a push for tougher rail regulations, said Wednesday that although she was still reviewing the DOT proposal, she was concerned to see that only trains carrying 20 carloads or more of flammable liquids would fall under the new standards. That potentially leaves room for mishaps with trains carrying smaller loads, she said.

"Our focus has been on getting the material in a safer car because even at low speeds, you can have a derailment. And the best defense is having the car hold up in a derailment," Darch said. "We think the enhanced standards that they're proposing for the tank cars are the best solution and we would like to see that universally adopted for train cars carrying flammable hazardous material."

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

11 comments
Stephen Aske
Stephen Aske

Better safety rules!! Don't get me started. I live in North Dakota.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

The body count of "important" people must be getting high enough to consider doing something. It sounds like a corner near where I live. They finally put up a stop sign. People are still dying. A caution light was suggested. The local government viewed it as potentially acknowledging responsibility for liability. I guess the body count will be quite high when they get around to a stop light.

Diane Merriam
Diane Merriam

The best and much safer alternative to rail car transport is a pipeline.

Kenneth Green
Kenneth Green

What we need are designated safe pipeline right of ways that avoid aquifers, built up areas, and environmentally sensitive areas.  They should be diked to contain any leaks and constantly monitored.  Emergency equipment and suitable firefighting equipment staged along the routes.

Carter Fox Jr.
Carter Fox Jr.

When will folks realize, it's not in the regulations, it's in the technology.

If you're going to ship thousands of gallons of oil across country, wouldn't it make sense to sure up the route your using and upgrade your equipment? Shippers are not very smart, in that, a truck is regulated to 80,000 lbs GVW. A shipper will weigh the truck empty, then fill it with freight, and then figure out that the truck is overweight and ship it anyway! Leaving the overweight fines and damages to fall on the driver, when in fact, they are the reason the vehicle doesn't conform to DOT regulations. This same principle applies to trains. If a train is 2 miles long and each car is filled to the brim with oil, what makes them think they can ship this WMD across country, and nothing will happen? In a resource driven economy, we wouldn't need oil anyway! Everybody would use ways to preserve our planet instead of destroying it for profit!

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

You would think that intelligent beings could foresee problems and initiate rules and regulations to prevent them--but that would involve killing off all the Rightwing stooges in our nation--now we're getting to the crux of the problem-----

Sarah Ford
Sarah Ford

"Bomb train" is the current term...

Regards, S B Ford

Carol Manka
Carol Manka

The proposed DOT rules begins to address a very important issue related to the growing numbers of trains transporting oil. The sticking point will probably be that the railroad companies and the oil companies won't want to spend the money that this will cost them without a significant increase in the cost of oil. That will ripple into everyone's budget one way or another.  So I am not at all sure that these regulations will make it to approval even though many of us believe that it is essential that communities and cities and the people in them be protected.


Thank you for publishing the article, National Geographic. 

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

This is a long time coming. It wasn't until after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska that they started requiring ocean going tankers to have double hulls to protect the environment in case of an accident. The same rules should apply to rail tankers. And they should have the same requirements to all loads and not just those over 20 cars in length. Accident can happen at any speed and any length!!! They should also have at least one car in any that are carrying crude, that has some supplies available in case of an accident. A little common sense should also be required, But then again we can't have everything!

Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »