Carbon by train

Pipelines are costly to build, and their approval and construction nearly always creates conflict with communities that are frequently fiercely opposed to pipelines running across land and waterways that would be catastrophically affected by spills of oil or the release of natural gas.

The technical and legal difficulties involved in constructing pipelines, the length of time involved, and the huge cost, has induced many fossil fuel companies to move fossil fuels by train. The tracks are already laid—only the coal cars and the tanker cars have to be procured, coupled up, and readied for operation.

Coal train

Coal in North America is conveyed in uncovered rail cars. It’s hardly surprising that during transport substantial amounts of coal dust and fragments are swept off the surface of the coal. Each car in a coal train may lose between 250 to 800 kg of coal dust over the course of its journey, according to a study by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. This means a typical 125-car coal train could release over 100 tonnes of dust in a single trip.  And coal dust, just like coal, contains traces of heavy metals and of course the ubiquitous neurotoxin: mercury. 

Chemical surfactants sprayed onto the coal reduce the amount of coal dust lost from the cars—but they are also potentially a contaminant of surface water and soil.   

Coal dust has an unusual characteristic as it settles on the rail ballast—the crushed rock that anchors the crossties and the steel rails themselves. The coal dust clogs the spaces in the rail ballast and turns it into a solid tar-like substance when wet. This effect apparently decreases the stability of the track, and this has led to some spectacular derailments. In 2012, there were seven coal train derailments in the US. In July 2012, three coal trains derailed in the same week.[1]  On the July 4, 2012, 31 rail cars laden with coal derailed in the Chicago suburb of Northwood.  The cars toppled onto a road bridge that collapsed–killing two people traveling in a car passing underneath [2].

Just a few weeks later, on 21 August 2012, an eastbound CSX coal train derailed the first 21 cars while crossing the railroad bridge over Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland. The train consisted of two locomotives and 80 loaded coal cars weighing almost 10,000 tons. Seven of the derailed cars fell into a public parking area that was below and north of the tracks. The remainder of the derailed cars overturned and spilled coal along the north side of the tracks.  Two women who just happened to be walking under the bridge at the time were killed [3].

More recently in 2014, four coal train derailments were reported by the US Safety Transportation Board. On January 17, a CSX coal train derailed in Dunnellon, Florida; two days later a Union Pacific coal train derailed near Caledonia, Wisconsin; on January 31, a Norfolk Southern coal train derailed near Jewell Ridge, Virginia; and on May 1, a CSX coal train derailed in Bowie, Maryland [4]

Canada’s rail network is the third largest worldwide and transports the fourth largest volume of goods. Canadian railways move about 70% of the country’s surface goods (including 40% of its exports) and carry over 70 million people.

In 2015, 1,200 rail accidents were reported to the Canadian Transport Safety Board, a 3% decrease from the 2014 total of 1,238 but an 8% increase from the 2010-­2014 average of 1,115.

Approximately one third of the trains involved in rail accidents in 2015 were freight trains. Not all these freight train accidents were coal trains—the statistics do not break out the details.  But it’s a reasonable assumption, given the huge amount of coal that moves by rail in Canada, that many of these approximately 400 freight train accidents involved coal trains. [5] 

Apart from the accidents, moving coal by train always spreads coal dust that pollutes the air, and which has a health impact on communities living near the tracks. You can’t move coal around without creating coal dust.

Coal trains also produce emissions from the diesel locomotives—sometimes 2 or 3 coupled in a single train—that are a significant source of air pollution.

But the worst-case scenarios are reserved for the oil trains.

Oil by rail

The transport of oil by train developed around 2010 as a way of avoiding congested pipelines and moving crude oil from the Bakken field to refineries on the US Gulf coast. Since then the practice has taken off—both in the US and in Canada.

Oil trains have several advantages over pipelines: flexibility, relatively low investment and permitting costs, and a relatively short lead time.

North American rail shipments of crude oil and petroleum products have been increasing rapidly. US crude oil carloads went from less than 10,000 in 2008 to about 400,000 in 2013. The volume of crude oil shipped by rail that year was estimated at about 680,000 bbl/day—which was about 10% of US crude oil production. 

Canadian crude and petroleum products rail shipments also increased strongly—up 150% from 2009 to 2012. Rail shipments of crude and petroleum represented 5% and 9% of total rail shipments in the US and Canada respectively in 2012.[6] 

Increasing volumes of crude oil transported by rail raises serious concerns about safety. A review conducted by the International Energy Agency found that there are more accidents with rail cars than pipelines—but that the quantities of oil spilled are smaller.

In other words, in terms of barrel-miles of oil transported, trains have more accidents but pipelines spills are larger.  In fact, the risk of a train accident is six times higher than that of a pipeline—but pipelines spill three times as much oil. [7]

What these numbers don’t tell you though, is that oil train accidents are not about the spills. 

They are about the fires and catastrophic explosions.

Mosier, Oregon

In June 2016 a unit train carrying crude oil on the Union Pacific line derailed near Mosier, Oregon, USA. Fourteen cars of the 96-car train derailed; four caught fire and burned explosively. The train was carrying crude oil from the Bakken field from Eastport, Idaho to Tacoma, Washington through the Columbia River Gorge.  Crude oil from the Bakken field is more volatile than most crudes and is therefore more likely to explosively ignite in the case of an accident.

Oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon

The photo shows the scene just after the accident. The extraordinary length of the train is evident—as is the proximity of the railway to nearby houses [8].  No-one was injured; but given how close the accident was to the town’s residences and to a road bridge—this was a lucky escape.

Crude oil from the Bakken field was also the cargo in an oil train accident and conflagration in November 2013, when a 90-car train carrying 2.9 million gallons of Bakken crude from Amory, Mississippi, to a refinery in Walnut Hill, Florida derailed and exploded in Aliceville, Alabama. Twenty cars full of oil and two of the three locomotives jumped the tracks. At least 11 of the railcars at one point were aflame [9].

Just a couple of weeks before this accident, in October, a Canadian National oil train derailed in Alberta, Canada. Thirteen of the cars carrying crude oil and liquified petroleum gas jumped the tracks. One LPG car exploded and three others burst in flame. Residents were evacuated from the nearby town of Gainford. It was reportedly the third CN derailment in as many weeks.[10]

Just a few weeks later, on December 30, 2013, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota, 20 miles outside of Fargo, forced the evacuation of half the town’s residents after 400,000 gallons of oil spilled and 18 oil cars exploded into flame  [11].

Lac Megantic, Quebec

In Canada the same year, by far the most catastrophic oil train accident occurred in Lac Megantic, Quebec.

On the evening of July 5, 2013, at about 11 pm, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) train arrived at Nantes, Quebec, carrying 2 million gallons of crude oil in 72 tank cars. The oil had come from the Bakken field in North Dakota and was bound for Saint John, New Brunswick.

After arriving in Nantes, the locomotive engineer parked the train on a descending gradient on the main track—a replacement engineer was scheduled to take over the train the next morning.

The engineer had applied hand brakes on all five locomotives and two other cars and shut down all but the lead locomotive. Railway rules require that hand brakes alone, without the action of air brakes, be capable of holding a train stationary. That night, however, the locomotive air brakes were left on, meaning that the train was being held by a combination of hand brakes and air brakes.

This error would not have proved disastrous—except that the lead locomotive had mechanical problems which led to a small fire igniting in the turbocharger of the diesel engine. This fire was quickly extinguished, but the electric circuits of the lead locomotive were shut down as a precaution by the local firefighters called to the scene.

Without electricity, the compressor powering the air brakes stopped.

The air brakes were on—but with the compressor turned off, the air brakes slowly lost their braking power. The hand brakes could not hold the train on the inclined track. At about 1 am, the train slowly began to move.

It picked up speed as it rolled downhill towards Lac Megantic, seven miles away–reaching a top speed of 65 mph. Fifteen minutes later, the train derailed near the centre of the town

Almost all of the 63 derailed tank cars were damaged, and many were ripped apart. About 6 million litres of oil were spilled, and almost immediately many of the damaged cars exploded. Much of the downtown core of the town was destroyed. Forty-seven people were killed, and 2000 people were forced from their homes [12].  The photograph shows the accident scene after the catastrophic explosion and fire.

As a result of the accident, the MMA railroad company went bankrupt—unable to pay the estimated $180 million in damages and penalties likely to be imposed.  Canadian regulators subsequently discovered that that the company carried only $25 million in liability insurance [13].

In 2018, it was reported that new rail tracks would be laid bypassing the town. The construction will cost $133 million. Several other towns in Canada are pressing to have freight trains rerouted around their centres.  But laying new train tracks is expensive. In Saskatoon, where the government wants to relocate Canadian Pacific tracks, the cost could reach almost $600 million[14].    

In Canada, the oil-train accidents continued—although not as catastrophically as the disaster in Lac Megantic.

Trains operated by Canadian National derailed along main lines 57 times in 2014—up 73% from 2013. At least 27 of the domestic derailments were caused by track problems [15]

On March 7, 2015, a CN oil train loaded with crude oil was heading east near Gogama, Ontario.  It was equipped with two locomotives hauling 94 tank cars—over 6000 feet long and weighing 14,355 tons.  At 2.42 in the morning while traveling at 43 mph, the automatic braking system was activated. The crew looked back to see a fireball about 700 feet behind the locomotives.  Thirty nine of the 94 cars had derailed. The engineers detached the locomotives and the first five cars still on the rails and pulled clear.  The fire burned for 3 days and destroyed 700 feet of track.  No-one was injured.[16]

On 22 June 2018, a train carrying Canadian crude oil derailed in Iowa releasing an estimate 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded river. About 30 of the tank cars ended up in the water; about half of them leaked even though they were the new stronger DOT-117R tank cars.[17] Again no-one was injured and the oil did not ignite.  But the risk of another catastrophic accident when oil is conveyed by train is clearly significant.[18]  


For more background check these sources:

[1] See: Coal derailments lead to tragedy, at //
[2] See: Coal derailments lead to tragedy. Op.cit
[3] See the NTSB accident report: //
[4] See Railway accidents in the United States 2011 through June 2014. At :  //$file/Railway+Accidents+in+the+United+States.pdf
[5] See the Canadian Transportation Safety Board website at //
[6] See the International Energy Report: Medium-term oil market report 2013.
[7] See the IEA report page 134
[8] See: Oil train derails in Columbia River Gorge, rally calls for ban on ‘Bomb trains’. //–1891163987.html
[9] See: Train carrying crude oil derails in Pickens County causing explosions and fire, no injuries reported. At //
[10] See Train carrying oil, liquid petroleum gas derails in Alberta. Accessed at // ml
[11] See: 2013 was a record year for oil-train accidents, and insurers are wary. Accessed at: //
[12] See Lac-Megantic runaway train and derailment investigation summary. Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Accessed at //
[13] See: 2013 was a record year for oil-train accidents, and insurers are wary. Accessed at: //
[14] See: Lac Megantic relocating railway line, in the Toronto Star on 11 May 2018.
[15] See Canadian National Railways derailment numbers soared 73% before recent crashes, at // .
[16] See the Transportation Safety Board of Canada News release: Derailment and fire of second Canadian national crude oil train near Gogama, Ontario. At //
[17] DeSmogBlog. Derailed oil train spills 230,000 gallons of tar sands in flooded Iowa river. Accessed at : //
[18] DeSmogBlog. Oil-by-rail rises once again as safety rules disappear. //