Maybe the oil barons are right

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, February 21, 2015

It happened again, and again . . . and again this past week. Three oil trains went on the ground, and in two of those instances the results were awful.

In West Virginia, a CSX unit train carrying light sweet crude from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., derailed 27 loaded cars beside the Kanawha River, and 19 of them either exploded or were involved in the subsequent fire. As I write this, five days later, the fire is still burning and an important CSX artery remains blocked. About all the National Transportation Safety Board will say is that the train was not violating the speed limit and that no obvious cause has been discovered, possibly because nobody can get that close to the wreckage.

Meanwhile, two other crude oil trains derailed. The most catastrophic involved a train on Canadian National’s main line crossing northern Ontario. Seven of 29 cars that derailed caught fire, and not until three days later was the route reopened (while the cars continued to smolder a safe distance from the tracks).

That same day, in southern Alberta, a Canadian Pacific crude oil train dumped 12 cars, two of which tumbled onto their sides in a rock field. Fortunately, the derailment occurred at slow speed and neither of the toppled cars leaked its oil.

We learned three things from these accidents. The first thing is that heavier tank cars with thicker shells won’t forestall punctures in derailments at track speed. All three accidents involved CPC-1232 tank cars, a new design adopted by the railroads with thicker shells than the DOT-111 cars that had long been the industry standard. The accidents in West Virginia and Ontario apparently occurred near track speed, which in West Virginia is 50 mph and in Ontario 40 mph. So much for the protection of thicker steel. Soon the U.S. Department of Transportation will approve a new standard tank car, the DOT-117, with even thicker skin. But it will fare little better under the stress of a major derailment.

The second thing we learned is that bitumen—the tar-like oil from Northern Alberta—burns just like North Dakota’s light sweet crude. Last year I wrote that you couldn’t set bitumen afire with a flamethrower. Well, I was wrong. That train in Ontario was loaded with diluted bitumen, and up it went.

The third thing we learned is that if you derail a crude oil train at slow enough speed, you may get lucky and avoid catastrophe. Such was the case with the accident in Alberta, near Crowsnest Pass. But ask a Class I railroad to run its crude oil trains at 30 mph, and you’ll be told its entire network will grind to a halt trying to accommodate slower freights.

All this being the case, maybe the American Petroleum Institute was right to say the best way to prevent crude oil fireballs on railroad rights of way is not to derail the train. At the time API adopted this position, I dismissed it as a way to shift the blame onto railroads. Plus, it seemed simplistic. Now I tend to agree. That, or operate them at 30 mph. And if 30-mph trains are untenable to the railroads, then maybe it’s time for tougher track standards and hefty surcharges on crude oil shipments to pay for more-frequent track and car inspections and defect detectors.

And one more thing: I don’t know about you, but crude oil trains are starting to scare me, too.—Fred W. Frailey

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