Transporting Oil and Coal by Rail: The Under-Appreciated Risks

Everyone in the Pacific Northwest is aware of the major uptick in rail shipments of coal and oil, with potentially much more ahead. While our coalition of activist organizations and public officials has stopped a number of proposed regional oil and coal shipping terminals, the struggle for a safer region is not over. Even if coastal oil terminals for international export are stopped, plans are proceeding to greatly expand the transport of crude oil from the Bakken fields to serve the refineries in our area. With the slowing of oil from the Alaskan fields that has largely fed the three Anacortes refineries, the companies are looking to North Dakota to increasingly make up the difference.

Since 1862 when BNSF’s predecessor railroads began service, to now, 154 years later, railroads have never put the public at such risk. Railroad analysts and employees have identified two major reasons. The first is train length. Up until quite recently when a train pulled more than 50 cars, it wad divided. Now trains are commonly over 100 cars (this while dramatically reducing the number of employees per train, now typically down to two).

The second reason is what is carried. Coal and oil are much heavier than many other types of freight, and they are replacing much of the other freight in the northwest as the movement of oil and coal to western ports has become economically attractive to both the energy companies and the railroads.

But here is where these trends link to an increased risk. A recent study by the LA Times of 31 rail accidents involving crude oil since 2013 found that 17, or 55%, were ascribed to “track problems or track failure.” While the rate of railroad accidents overall has trended down, the rate of accidents involving crude oil transport has gone up. Oil trains appear to cause unique stresses on the tracks. And “wide gauge” was found to be largely responsible - the immense weight of rail cars in 100-car trains causes the tracks to push apart. If that happens as little as three inches, the cars derail. It is also presumed that the sloshing of oil in the cars is a factor because it increases the stress on the tracks.

Railroads, including BNSF, have spent millions of dollars upgrading their tracks. But, it is important to note that derailments were found to be occurring even on upgraded sections of tracks.

The derailment in Mosier, Oregon, this month was attributed to “track failure” but from a different cause. A railroad tie and its metal pin failed.

What is emerging from these accidents across the US in the past few years is evidence that no amount of preventive track maintenance can prevent derailments. The massive loads and the stresses produced overwhelm the infrastructure that is in many cases over 100 years old (think of the bridges next).

This conclusion is supported by the people that know best: railroad employees and firefighters. It explains why months ago the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters adopted a position opposing the transport of crude by rail because they stated that it simply “cannot be done safely.” The Vancouver, WA Fire Fighters Union similarly opposes building a large crude oil export terminal in Vancouver on the Columbia River.

So far most of the oil train derailments have occurred in rural areas. Several have not, or have been in dangerously close proximity to town or city populations (the Mosier accident is an example). Trains carrying crude oil in WA pass through almost every large city in the state, and many smaller communities. 

WPSR believes, therefore, that there is no safe way to transport volatile crude oil by rail. The bigger issue, as we all know, is that most of the world’s known crude oil and coal needs to stay in the ground to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. That’s the long-term goal. Over the shorter term, the risks to people in our state from crude oil accidents and fires are unacceptable, and we believe we need to work to stop their transport completely. Our medical adage holds again: prevention is the best (and here, only) treatment.

(In a subsequent article I will address the scientifically documented risks to human health from the transport of coal by rail.)

Bruce Amundson, MD