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Page added on July 28, 2014

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Bomb Trains: The Crude Gamble of Oil by Rail

It’s estimated that 9 million barrels of crude oil are moving over the rail lines of North America at any given moment. Oil trains charging through Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, and Canada’s Quebec, New Brunswick, and Alberta provinces have derailed and exploded, resulting in severe environmental damage and, in the case of Quebec, considerable human casualties.

A continental oil boom and lack of pipeline infrastructure have forced unprecedented amounts of oil onto US and Canadian railroads. With 43 times more oil being hauled along US rail lines in 2013 than in 2005, communities across North America are bracing for another catastrophe.

VICE News traveled to the Pacific Northwest to investigate the rapid expansion of oil-by-rail transport and speak with residents on the frontline of the battle over bomb trains.


12 Comments on "Bomb Trains: The Crude Gamble of Oil by Rail"

  1. johnny on Mon, 28th Jul 2014 8:00 pm 

    You can thank all the eco weenies for killing all the new pipelines.

  2. Plantagenet on Mon, 28th Jul 2014 8:44 pm 

    How many years has Obama been blocking the Keystone XL pipeline? How many “bomb trains” have been needed to transport the oil that could’ve been more safely carried by the XL pipeline, if only the Obama administration wasn’t out to block oil pipelines.

  3. rockman on Mon, 28th Jul 2014 9:37 pm 

    “…9 million barrels of crude oil are moving over the rail lines of North America at any given moment”. I’ll take their word on it. Another stat: every year about 170 million bbls of more explosive gasoline travel down our roads. Past school buses, subdivisions, hospitals, etc. And of course there’s the tens of thousands of even more explosive LPG loads hauled down our every year along with tens of thousands of loads of very poisonous/explosive chemicals.

    But let’s just stick with gasoline and LPG. Difficult to find the stats but got these:

    For 1997 the number of gasoline tankers accidents in which they ruptured and spilled their cargo: 490. Couldn’t find stats on related deaths but searching for individual stories fatalities are obviously common. For that same year there were 47 LPG tanker accidents where this very explosive gas was released.

    Couldn’t find stats for how many of the 30,000+ fatalities per year of US vehicle accidents resulted from ruptured fuel tanks but I would guess a lot more then died in that Canadian rail accident. Not that those deaths are less tragic than the much greater number of folks who die yearly from hydrocarbons being hauled by other means.

    But it is interesting there’s so much focus on the significantly fewer fatalities from hydrocarbon transport via rail then the rest of the distribution system. It’s almost as if some have an agenda that has more to do with oil production then just those deaths. Just seems a tad opportunistic IMHO.

  4. R1verat on Mon, 28th Jul 2014 10:28 pm 

    I am glad that the pipeline was nixed. Would have just been another environmental damaging band aid to postpone the inevitable.

  5. Perk Earl on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 12:02 am 

    “Daddy, what’s that?”
    “It was a pipeline used to carry oil.”
    “Why so big?”
    “Because there use to be a huge world economy with most transport relying on refined oil for fuel.”
    “How come it’s empty now?”
    “Because once the low hanging fruit was gone the EROEI got too low and the world financial bubble burst and well, here we are now tilling the soil.”
    “Never mind. You just had to have been there on the oil blogs to understand it. Come on, let’s work this plot. We need to start on irrigation next week.”

  6. Norm on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 2:11 am 

    It’s all Obama’s fault. He is in the locomotive running the train. If the train crashes, it was Obama did it. In the meantime, the middle class is full of scumbags lazy-asses, entitlement mentality slobs and losers. Its Obama’s fault they can’t spell their own name. If it weren’t for Obama, they’d all be 120 pounds lighter, know what is a European vacation, and they wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart. Its clearly Obama’s fault.

    Teabaggers On Welfare
    In Trailers

    or TOW IT.

  7. Arthur on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 3:16 am 

    Trains are much more flexible than pipelines, that won’t be needed in 10-20 years time anyway. Accidents are a fact of life and an oil train is no Fukushima.

  8. rockman on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 6:27 am 

    Riverrat – So better to have the same volume of oil carried by thousands of runs of diesel powered locomotives? Trains that cross road intersections hundreds of thousands of time every year? Rail carriers that are charging more for all freight hauled by rail thanks to the surge in oil transport demand and thus increasing the cost to all consumers of everything shipped by rail?

    And more important: not approving the border crossing section of KXL has delayed the shipment of one bbl of oil sands production. Today Canada is exporting more oil to the US than ever before in history. Other pipeline expansions are moving the oil across the US. Such as the expansion of the other Keystone pipe now connected to the completed section of the southern leg of KXL that’s currently delivering the same oil, 600,000 bopd, to Texas refineries. The same volume of oil the northern leg of KXL is designed to carry. And since that section was to be routed to also carry Bakken production the delay has motivated the construction of another pipeline (which doesn’t require POTUS approval) dedicated to moving just that oil to the Gulf Coast.

    It just amazes me that after all the explanations of the oil pipeline transport system we’ve had here that anyone thinks the delay of the border crossing permit has done anything to hamper the development and export of the oil sands.

  9. pctech on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 8:57 am 

    While the tank cars are indeed a safety issue, they are not the cause of the accidents. It’s derailments generally caused by poor maintenance of tracks themselves. I’m not a rail safety expert, but I can walk down any track where I live and see large numbers of decayed cross-ties, spikes pulling out, ballast sinks,etc. We need much better inspection of the rail system and the phasing out of old fashioned wooden cross-ties with spiked down rails.
    I agree that the oil train boom will be short as the tight shale is a “flash in the pan” kind of deal.
    Keystone XL pipeline is designed for Canadian Tar sands type oil, not Balken type crude

  10. rockman on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 9:28 am 

    pc – The KXL was designed and routed to carry oil from other regions including Bakken production. BTW to move the oil sands production through any pipeline requires diluting it with up to 30% light oil. TransCanada’s own words:

    “This pipeline goes through many different states and provinces on its route south, including: Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, and then Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska in the United States. Along with transporting crude oil from Canada, the Keystone XL Pipeline will transport oil from producers in Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and North Dakota.”

    See more at:

  11. louis wu on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 1:13 pm 

    Wasn’t there a movie about this with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine?

  12. synapsid on Tue, 29th Jul 2014 7:56 pm 

    Louis Wu,

    Unstoppable, with Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson. Great movie! That had a run-away train carrying an assortment of cargoes some of which were lethal if dumped–the one they mentioned was molten phenol, which is highly toxic and highly inflammable.

    I love that movie.

    Am I the only one who wonders why things that were labeled “inflammable” when I was a kid are labeled “flammable” now? Were there accidents caused by people thinking that “inflammable” means it won’t burn?

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