On July 5, 2013, the lone engineer of a Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) train arrived in Nantes, Quebec, set both the hand and air brakes, finished up his paperwork. He then left the train parked on the main line for the night, unattended atop a long grade. Five locomotives were pulling 72 tanker cars of oil, each containing 30,000 gallons of volatile crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. During the night, the lead locomotive caught fire, so the emergency responders cut off the engine, as per protocol. However, that action led to a loss of pressure of the air brakes. The hand brakes (which were supposed to have been sufficient by themselves) failed, and the train began to run away. By the time it reached Lac-Mégantic early the next morning, the unattended cars were traveling 65 mph. When the train reached the center of town, 63 tank cars derailed and many of those exploded, tragically killing 47 people in a blaze that took over two days to extinguish.
With that event came a heightened awareness of the risks of transporting volatile petroleum products by rail. A derailment happened on a BNSF line near Casselton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013. This train was then struck by a train on an adjacent track, igniting another huge fireball, although this one was luckily just outside of town. On April 30, 2014, a CSX train derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, setting the James River on fire, narrowly avoiding the dense downtown area of the city of 75,000 people.
North American petroleum transportation by rail. Click on the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner to access the full screen map with additional tools and description.
Regulators in the US and Canada are scrambling to keep up. DOT-111 tank cars were involved in all of these incidents, and regulators seek to phase them out over the next two years. These cars account for 69% of the fleet of tank cars in the US, however, and up to 80% in Canada. Replacing these cars will be a tough task in the midst of the oil booms in the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays, which have seen crude by rail shipments increase from less than 5,000 cars in 2006 to over 400,000 cars in 2013.
This article is the first of several reports by the FracTracker Alliance highlighting safety and environmental concerns about shipping petroleum and related products by rail. The impacts of the oil and gas extraction industry do not end at the wellhead, but are a part of a larger system of refineries, power plants, and terminals that span the continent.