Fiery derailments spark worries about more rail cars carrying oil

But the chief of the Southern Platte Fire Protection District, Richard Carrizzo, has far more chilling concerns these days.

Fifteen years ago, a train derailed smack in the middle of town, spilling 2,600 tons of coal and destroying one historic building.

What would happen now if a train derailed hauling the same type of volatile crude oil that incinerated a town near the U.S.-Canada border last July and killed 47?

“If that happened right there, the downtown area would be gone,” Carrizzo said.

Across North America, authorities in communities large and small shudder at a very recent threat — trains carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil through urban areas in tank cars prone to ripping open in derailments.

With a congressional hearing on the safety of shipping oil by rail scheduled for Wednesday, two railroad industry initiatives were announced last week.


On Thursday, BNSF Railway, the nation’s second largest railroad, said it wants to buy 5,000 tankers that exceed current safety standards. Currently about 78,000 cars that puncture too easily carry oil and other flammable materials, regulators and the industry itself say.

And on Friday the nation’s largest freight railroads announced new voluntary safety measures, including increased track inspections and lower speeds through urban areas for some but not all trains carrying crude oil.

Rail shipments from North Dakota and western Canada have increased exponentially in the past few years to transport the production of a northern oil boom from areas that lack sufficient pipeline capacity.

The boom came so suddenly that oil shipments by rail have grown from a mere 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013. And the spike is expected to continue.

Good news for the nation’s energy independence, some say.

But along with that dramatic growth in domestic oil production has come a growing awareness of the dangers of transporting crude oil by rail, especially after last year’s fatal derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Fiery wrecks in Alabama and North Dakota followed in the months after.

“Oil trains are fragile strings of rolling bombs,” said Don Steinke, one of the Sierra Club’s point people studying the oil-by-rail issue.

The dangers are beginning to resonate in a busy rail center like Kansas City, which leads the nation in overall freight shipments as measured by tonnage and is second only to Chicago in the volume of train traffic.

How much crude oil rolls along tracks in the Kansas City area is not publicly known. Railroads aren’t in the habit of sharing that information with one another or local, state and federal authorities, let alone the public.

But Kansas City is a transfer point for oil shipments heading to Southern refineries, according to The Star’s review of federal transportation records as well as the companies’ own published statements in financial and marketing reports.

And a local disaster planning official said it’s safe to assume that crude oil is or could be traveling through any rail crossing in the city.

“Absolutely,” said Justin Sorg at the Mid-America Regional Council.

Recently, Kansas City Mayor Sly James joined Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and other big-city mayors in calling for improved oversight of crude oil shipments by rail through urban areas.

Meanwhile, local public safety officials in the Kansas City area are re-examining their procedures.

In a transportation hub like Kansas City, they must be prepared for the threats posed by all sorts of hazardous materials. But oil trains are a new and special threat for which local responders are untested, said Norman Larkey, deputy chief of special operations at the Kansas City Fire Department.

“A disaster such as those experienced in North Dakota would challenge any jurisdiction,” he said.

Burned to ashes

Larkey refers to the Dec. 30 oil train derailment and explosion outside Casselton, N.D.

About 1,400 residents of Casselton (about two-thirds of the town) had to evacuate when two trains, one hauling grain and the other pulling 106 tankers filled with oil, collided and derailed. Twenty oil cars left the tracks. Some ruptured, spilling 475,000 gallons of crude, and blew up. The massive fire burned for 24 hours.

No one was hurt, but had the fire raged in town, authorities said, lives almost certainly would have been lost.

Testament to that was the horrific oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic six months earlier. About 1 a.m. on July 6, an unattended train rolled into the tourist town 30 miles north of the Maine border.

Of the 72 tanker cars, 63 tumbled off the tracks, some of them bursting open, fueling a roaring inferno. Most of the nearly four dozen people killed had been partying at a popular tavern. Others died in bed, their bones reduced to ash.

Before those accidents and a Nov. 8 derailment and fire involving crude oil in Alabama, government and industry officials were raising concerns.

Crude oil is not particularly prone to combustion before it is refined into gasoline and other products. But as early as 2012, with oil shipments by rail beginning to ramp up in North Dakota, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began checking to see if that oil was different.

The 2013 fires confirmed the agency’s suspicions. All three trains were carrying the light, sweet crude drawn from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Officials suggest that among other characteristics, the higher amount of natural gas in the Bakken oil makes it quicker to ignite in a derailment.

Pile that atop longstanding fears concerning the safety of the black tanker cars carrying much of that oil, commonly known as DOT-111s.

Each tanker holds about 30,000 gallons. But experts say the older cars aren’t safe for carrying highly flammable liquids like Bakken crude.

They are made of thinner steel than the pressurized cars that haul propane and other gases — seven-sixteenths of an inch thick compared to twice that much — and therefore are more prone to tear open in a derailment.

The National Transportation Safety Board has long pushed for new rules to make DOT-111s more durable. But because the safety board has no regulatory authority, little changed until the tanker car industry voluntarily began making cars of tougher stuff nearly three years ago.

Railroads are common carriers and must transport any approved materials, even hazardous ones like crude oil. Generally they don’t own the tanker cars they haul.

Since this past fall, the Association of American Railroads has said the government should insist that older cars be retrofitted or put out of service.

Now as the feds begin to draft new regulations, some companies have taken steps on their own. Last week, BNSF announced it was asking for bids from rail car makers for 5,000 tankers that exceed even the 2011 specifications.

The walls of the cars would be thicker and have other safety features.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said his company has not decided on whether to buy new tank cars.

Kansas City Southern isn’t likely to, but it noted in a statement that the majority of tank cars are owned by shippers and Kansas City Southern “will continue to work with its customers who own their tank cars to maximize the safety of tank car movements.”

Also last week, BSNF and other freight haulers announced a series of voluntary safety measures, all of which apply to trains pulling 20 or more oil tanker cars.

Among them, the industry promised to increase track inspections along oil train routes, boost the braking capacity of oil trains and by July 1 operate at lower speeds through urban areas.

Also, the industry will provide $5 million in grants to train public safety personnel in responding to emergencies involving oil shipments.