Exploding Death Trains in Our Midst: Should We Worry?

Another derailment in Canada causes a dangerous fire.
This post is 7 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

It’s been scarcely three months since an oil train in Quebec exploded catastrophically, killing 47 people and leveling several blocks of a town. Then, last weekend, another oil-bearing train derailed resulting in another huge explosion:

Residents for miles around saw and heard a “large fireball” shortly after 1 a.m., [fire chief] Phelan said. “There’s been no explosion or similar event like that since.”

As before, local emergency responders were unable to put out the fire because it was simply too dangerous:

Fire officials say they have little choice but to let the fuel burn itself off, resulting in a dark, billowing cloud of smoke that remained hanging over Gainford throughout the day.

“…it’s safer just to let it flare until the product is consumed,” said Phalen, estimating the time required for burn-off to be between 24 and 72 hours.

Given that the fire could not be controlled, authorities wisely decided to evacuate residents within a mile of the scene:

Nearby resident Elaine Hughes… woke to her entire trailer shaking and looked out her window to see the entire sky lit up by the flames.

“Two fire and rescue guys came and banged on the door and [they] tell me I had to evacuate because there was a train derailment,” she said. “They told me to get dressed and I had to go.”

According to initial reports, the culprit was propane rather than crude oil. Yet the incident still raises questions about the safety of rail transport, particularly when we know that certain kinds of crude oil—including the kind planned for Northwest facilities—are prone to horrific combustion. And particularly when we’re talking about moving trains through densely populated areas, as we are in the Northwest.

What might happen if an oil-bearing train derailed in the tunnel under downtown Seattle? Or along the Edmonds waterfront? Or at a refinery?

Railroad officials take an optimistic view:

…company spokesman Mark Hallman. “The vast majority of commodities, such as dangerous commodities, that are transported from origin to destination, more than 99 per cent reach destination without any accidental release.”

In other words, less than one train in a hundred fails to arrive safely.

I just hope that number is a lot less than one-in-a-hundred—because the Northwest has active proposals to move more than 4,000 loaded oil trains annually.


Thanks to Roger Annis.

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  1. Stephen Rees says:

    I would suggest that there are a number of reasons why we should worry about oil trains. These are covered in much greater detail in a study published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives into Lac Megantic, Quebec explosion. Thew report very usefully compares conditions on freight railways in the US and Canada. The good news is that the US is moving ahead on Positive Train Control (Canada isn’t). The bad news is that deregulation has pretty much removed most of the safeguards that are needed – though Transport Canada has thrown in some quick fixes to make things look a bit better. More can found on my blog

  2. Sean says:

    FYI: Last two links in the first paragraph are broken.

    • Eric de Place says:

      Thanks. They’re fixed now.

  3. Peter Wilson says:

    I live in Edmonton Alberta and was very interested in Sightline’s oil train articles on the effect so much oil train traffic will have on day to day activities, accidents aside.

    You probably know Alberta is home to the Athabasca Oil/Tar Sands and of the difficulty Alberta and Canada is having bringing that oil to market since there is great opposition to pipelines.

    While the pipelines have been stalled the oil companies have been looking to rail as a solution.

    Two communities in Alberta, Bruderheim and Hardisty have been selected for the construction of oil to rail loading terminals , each capable of loading up to 13 trains per week – about 120 cars per train.



    These projects are being rushed into production and I have not read any articles about impact on traffic or crossing waits.

    Sightline’s articles are pretty sobering.

    I’m afraid rail infrastructure is not up to the increased traffic.

    One curious unrelated thing, both Bruderheim and Hardisty are famous for meteorites.

    The Bruderheim meteorite of 1960 is the largest ever found in Canada; while the removal of the Iron Creek meteorite from a hill close to present day Hardisty by Methodist missionaries in the late 1800’s was met with resistance and protests by the local Cree and Blackfoot Indians who said that the buffalo would disappear and starvation would occur.

    Sadly that prophesy came true – the Iron Creek meteorite is now on display in the Syncrude aboriginal gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton.

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