Last week, the Washington legislature adjourned having failed to require even basic disclosure about the movements of hazardous oil-bearing trains. The measure, which included a a “Right-to-Know” provision to help communities know more about the oil moving through, passed the House, but oil company opposition stopped the bill cold in the Senate.

Oil companies and railroads don’t want us to know what they’re up to, but we may be able to find out anyway. Citizens can use their own video camera equipped smart phones to start tracking oil trains. Think of it as crowdsourcing our Right to Know about oil trains.

There’s nothing nefarious about this. In fact, it already happens every day.

“Railfanning,” as it’s called by enthusiasts, is the hobby of watching and filming trains. You can find numerous videos online posted by dedicated railfans, including some of oil trains in the Northwest. Here’s one of oil tank cars rolling through Burlington, Washington. And another of a BNSF oil train in Vancouver, WA. Here’s one rolling through Mukilteo.

As US Senator Cantwell pointed out in a recent congressional hearing on rail safety, oil trains are traveling through every major population area in Washington (three of which are bigger than the entire state of North Dakota where they originate) as they move “from Spokane down to Pasco through the Columbia Gorge then through Vancouver, then up to Tacoma, and perhaps on through Seattle, through Everett, up to Skagit Country for processing.”

That’s a lot people who live, work, and play along oil train routes. And most of them have smart phones.

We could learn quite a lot by crowdsourcing our Right to Know. You can tell an oil train because each tank car will display a red diamond-shaped placard with numbers 1267 identifying the load as crude oil. And by simply counting the number of oil tank cars passing by, we can estimate the amount of oil that’s rolling through our neighborhoods (because we know that most tank cars hold around 700 barrels of crude).

Another one of the many mysteries about oil tank cars, their ownership, is also hiding in plain sight. Each oil car has the owner’s name in a code printed on the side called a “reporting mark.” Just go to Mark Search, type in the letter code (which typically ends in X), and the owner is revealed. Warren Buffet’s Union Tank Car tank cars are labeled UTLX; GATX Corp’s are, unsurprisingly, labeled GATX; Trinity Industries Inc. are TILX; The CIT Group are CBTX and CIGX. These are the companies that have chosen to allow older and manifestly unsafe DOT-111 tank cars to transport volatile Bakken crude. There is no margin for error when using these Ford Pintos of rail cars when hauling crude oil or ethanol.

  • What’s more, we can tell which tank cars are built to the newer standards adopted by the industry for tank cars ordered after October 2011. A newer tank car will have a “head shield” to reduce puncturing during derailment on both ends—a feature that is missing on older DOT-111s. Different manufacturers have taken different approaches to head shield design. Some are distinct metal plates, others are trapezoidal boxes, and others are built directly on the ends of the tank cars and bulge out.

    The Bangor Daily News has a photo clearly showing head shields on tank cars. You can also see them in this YouTube video of a oil train returning from the Tesoro Refinery at Anacortes, and in this brochure from tank car manufacturer Greenbrier. (As an aside, the newer models sporting half height head shields are better than what was on the books previously, but they are still flawed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is not convinced that they “offer significant safety improvements,” and they still have bottom outlet valves, “which have been prone to failure in derailment accidents.”)

    Here’s what one looks like without head shields:

    Tank Car by Harvey Henkelmann

    Tank Car by Harvey Henkelmann (

    Plus, by observing the composition of the oil train, we can tell if the oil-by-rail industry is simply adding the newer tank cars to the mix of older cars in a single train. This matters because, according to the NTSB, even with the newer models, the “safety benefits [are] not realized if old and new tank cars are commingled.” In other words, if a unit train with old and new tank cars derails, the older DOT-111s will almost certainly breach and explode, taking out the newer DOT-111s as well.

    So the next time you’re at a rail crossing watching the long line of black oil tank cars roll by, here’s what you should do: take out your phone, make a video so the reporting marks are visible, and upload it to YouTube. Title your video “NW Oil Tank Car Watch [location], [direction of travel], [date & time].” Videos like this should have enough information to allow us to count the tank cars, identify their ownership, and see whether they have head shields.

    Become a railfan with a mission. Take out your smart phone and join NW Oil Train Watch and uncover what the oil companies want to keep hidden.