Lac Mégantic Derailment, Québec in July 2013. Source:

Off the Rails: Risks of Crude Oil Transportation by Freight in NY State and Beyond

By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Since 2011, North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken Shale Play has made its way to refineries on the east coast via freight trains. This means of oil transportation is becoming increasingly common, as plans for pipeline development have been falling short, but demand for more energy development continues to climb (see New York Times, April 12 , 2014). In addition to the Bakken crude, there are also currently proposals under consideration to ship crude by rail  from Alberta’s tar sands region, along these same routes through New York State.

Alarm about the danger of these “bomb trains” came sharply into public focus after the disaster in Lac Mégantic, Québec in July 2013 when a train carrying 72 carloads of the highly volatile Bakken oil derailed, setting off a massive series of explosions that leveled several blocks of the small town, killing 47 people (photo above). The crude from the Bakken is considerably lighter than that of other oil and gas deposits, making it more volatile than the crude that has been traditionally transported by rail.

Quantifying the Risk

As estimated by the National Transportation Safety Board, with deliveries at about 400,000 barrels a day headed to the Atlantic coast, about a 20-25% of this volume passes through the Port of Albany, NY. There were recent approvals for 3 billion gallons to be processed through Albany. The remainder of the crude is delivered to other ports in the US and Canada. Any oil travelling by rail through the Port of Albany would also pass through significant population centers, including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, NY. Binghamton, NY is also bisected by commercial rail lines.

In the past year, the New York Times, as well as other media, have reported on the threat of disasters similar to what occurred in Québec last summer, as the freight cars pass through Albany. Not only is the oil itself volatile, safety oversight is extremely spotty. According to The Innovation Trail, “… a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only examines 1-percent of the countries rail road infrastructure.”

RiverKeeper, in their recent report on the topic, notes:

Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped six-fold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009.

This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed — and spectacularly.

The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out.

The Guardian has reported that a legacy of poor regulation and safety failures led to the disaster in Québec, leading to bankruptcy of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (MMA), and numerous class action suits. Records show that MMA was particularly lax in maintaining their rail cars and providing training for their employees. Meanwhile,  in the US, critics of rail transport of volatile crude oil point to inadequate monitoring systems, training, and, importantly, prepared and available emergency response teams that would be able to respond to explosions or disasters anywhere along the route. The size of a explosion that could occur would easily overwhelm volunteer fire and EMT services in many small towns.

These same trains pass through other major cities in Western and Central New York, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica. Not only are the railroads in proximity to significant population centers, they are also close to scores of K-12 schools, endangering the wellbeing of thousands of children (Table 1). In fact, across New York State, 495 K-12 public schools, or 12% of the total in the state, are within a half-mile of major railways–the standard evacuation distance for accidents involving railcars filled with flammable liquids and gases, as recommended by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) in their Emergency Response Guidebook. The US DOT also recommends an isolation zone of 1600 meters (1.0 miles) around any railcars filled with those materials if they are on fire.

Map of NYS Rail Lines and K-12 Schools

Click on this interactive map or pan through the state to explore regions outside of Rochester, NY. For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.

Buffalo Rail Lines and Proximity to Schools

Fig. 1. Buffalo Rail Lines & Proximity to Schools

For example, on their way through the City of Buffalo crude-carrying freight trains pass within a half-mile of residences of more than 86,000 people, as well as 20 public schools and 4 private schools, and within a half-mile of homes of nearly 60,000 people, 15 public schools, and 5 private schools, on the way through Rochester. See Figures 1-5.

Our work stands in support of and extends the excellent analyses already focusing on the Port of Albany done this past summer by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Healthy Schools Network. (See their report, which looked at the north-south rail corridor in New York State that passes along the Hudson River, within close proximity to 75 K-12 schools).

Table 1. Summary of population statistics in proximity to railways for five New York State cities

City Population
(2010 US Census)

Within ½ Mile of  Freight Rail Way

% Population # K-12 public schools in city # K-12 private schools in city
Buffalo 261,310 33% 28 8
Rochester 214,989 27.4% 15 5
Syracuse 145,168 16% 4 1
Utica 62,230 28.5% 2 0
Binghamton 47,376 63.5% 6 0

Figures 2-5. Proximity maps for Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Binghamton, NY

Rochester, NY

Rochester, NY

Syracuse, NY

Syracuse, NY

Utica, NY

Utica, NY

Binghamton, NY

Binghamton, NY

Learn more about Oil Transportation and Accidents by Rail

3 replies
  1. Margaret Hurley
    Margaret Hurley says:

    The map of the rail line through the City of Rochester, NY is chilling — tars sands in train bombs being transported through the poorest neighborhoods and past 15 urban schools attended by the poorest of the poor, because too many people think of the urban poor as disposable. These trains travel over old, rusting iron bridges in the city. As do the poor everywhere, they face the greatest threats to their lives. Our City’s leaders are silent on this impending disaster.

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