Oil Trainspotting in the Northwest

Start filming oil trains to crowdsource our Right To Know.
This post is 23 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails

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 (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:HarveyHenkelmann)

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.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!



  1. Washy says:

    Is there going to be anything that your NOT going to complain about?? I’m serious, first coal now crude oil.. And I bet your still using electricity and driving a car… I’ve said on the sight before that your very hypocritical, can’t b$$$$ about something then be using it at the same time, to most people with common since it’s wrong.. Transporting anything by rail is a lot safer than truck, especially any Haz-mat in large quantity.. Even after the tragic accident in Canada and the hand full of derailments that have happened, crude oil is that last commodity that placitored that I’d be concerned about at work. There are far worst commodities that are transported every day that are deadlier….

    • Eric de Place says:

      My complaints about coal and crude oil have just begun. The large-scale transport/export schemes now underway are disastrous — both economically and environmentally — for the Northwest. That’s the case I’ve been making in detail here and elsewhere.

      • Jerry says:

        Eric, thanks for continuing to educate us on this emerging human safety and environmental disaster. I live in a city through which Bakken Crude is hauled on elevated rail through the center of town and over our beloved river. I have personally spoken to first responders who have said there is little they could do in the first moments of a derailment to keep it from becoming a massive conflagration. Additionally, corporate interests such as BNSF continue to dodge responsibility for assuring health and safety of our community and our river, and continue to make untold fortunes on the back of the communities that shoulder the risk. This needs to end. Thanks for keeping us aware and educated on this issue. The community is awakening and your work is making a difference.

  2. Elaine Livengood says:

    I’m glad to be informed about important issues. Sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t wash with me! Bakken crude is not the same “Texas tea” that the Beverly Hillbillies celebrated.

  3. Steve Wilson says:

    So, are you as concerned about oil and gasoline being transported via highway tanker trucks through your precious little communities? Statitics would indicate highway tankers are more likely to be in a crash than a train of tankcars. Also, the highway tankers are on PUBLIC right of way, whereas trains are private property. Why does nobody seem to be as concerned about the volatile commodities being transported by truck than by train.

    • Eric de Place says:

      Believe me, Steve, if oil companies teamed up with truckers to transport nearly 800,000 barrels of oil every day through Northwest communities I would be up in arms. But the fact is, nothing like that is on the table.

      What IS on the table is an unprecedented increase in rail transport of a extraordinarily volatile type of crude oil moved via a model of tanker car that is obviously unsafe, and that federal safety investigators have criticized literally for decades.

      As for your line about “precious little communities,” I’m not even sure where to begin. As a matter of fact, the communities where my friends and family live really are precious to me. I bet the 47 people killed in Quebec by an oil train explosion felt the same way about their place. I hope you do too.

  4. Rob says:

    What Washy said.

    Just looks at every tank car going by. Note the placard numbers, then look them up. Many tank cars are also stenciled what they are set up to carry. Chlorine? Anyhydrous ammonia? Propane (LOTS OF PROPANE!)? I’ll take an oil spill any day over a chlorine and ammonia leak, or LP explosion. And I’m sure there’s other stuff that is worse the three I mentioned.

    And yes, if you don’t like it, then park your car, turn off your cell phone and computer. How much electricity is requried to run our computers, internet, and cell-phone networks?

    • Eric de Place says:

      That’s right: there are even more dangerous substances out there than Bakken oil. The railroads won’t inform emergency responders or communities about them either, and sometimes people die as a result.

      What’s different about the oil trains, as I suspect you well know, is that BNSF wants to haul roughly 400,000 loaded tank cars through the Northwest every year. No other hazardous substance comes even close to that volume.

      I believe that communities have a right to know about the dangers they’re being exposed to by reckless profit-driven energy companies. Why that means I shouldn’t use a computer or a car, I have no idea. Is your point that if I use any form of energy I should therefore enthusiastically support communities being incinerated by exploding oil trains?

  5. Mark says:

    I guess I totally missed your point. How do your suggestions in any way make things safer for the public?? Au contraire. Thank you for making things even easier for domestic terrorists to identify, track and target dangerous shipments to be used in an urban attack!

    • Eric de Place says:

      Let’s be perfectly clear: the people responsible for putting us at risk — whether the risk is a terrorist attack or an accidental inferno — are the oil companies and the railways that abet them, with complacent government regulators playing a supporting role. We know for a fact that Bakken oil is “flammable like gasoline” (in the words of one industry source) and that the tank cars used to transport them are so riddled with safety flaws that the feds have for years urged they be removed from service.

      The industry could at any point voluntarily stop what is a clearly unsafe means of moving oil, but instead they’ve done the opposite. They’ve added insult to injury by blocking any attempt to inform local communities and emergency responders about the threats they are daily bringing to town.

      If local communities are to have a fighting chance of keeping themselves safe they will need diligent citizens doing nothing more than taking pictures of what oil companies are putting in their midst.

    • Elona says:

      Do you get paid by these oil companies to troll or do you just offer your services for free? Because if so, you could really be making money doing their bidding.

      • Christin says:

        Elona, I was thinking along similar lines: “This Mark person must be getting paid to publicly display such incredible ignorance and paranoia.”

        I really liked how Eric countered by clarifying the most direct cause and effect relationship in place. More oil trains = highly likelihood of disaster, regardless of the ignition cause of a specific incidence of disaster.

  6. Fossil Fuel Threats says:

    Snohomish County residents, please sign up to volunteer for the Train Watch in April http://snocogreennews.org/trainwatch

  7. Peter Marshall says:

    If funding were available, an even more efficient way to get this oil transport data would be periodic aerial photography to document the number and location of tank car traffic. Assume all of them to be full(700 barrels per car) and assume they’re the most explosive Bakken crude.
    If the oil producers, shippers or refiners want to quarrel with the resulting estimates, let them prove otherwise. In the meantime, at least there would be some basic data to prepare for potential environmental cleanup and disaster response.
    Maybe this is a perfect job for a drone aircraft.

    Pete Marshall

  8. Elona says:

    If only there was a population of youth armed with spray cans who cared enough to change their tags from undecipherable boasting to useful awareness raising…

  9. Christin says:

    Would it be a good idea to have a database where trainspotters can input and access each others’ data (such as: location, direction of travel, date, time, owner, how many cars, youtube link to video) for analysis?

    As someone who sees at least one oil train per day (during my short 6.1 mile commute over 3 train tracks), I would like to be able to find out if my suspicions of increased number of oil tank cars are based in reality or caused by an observational or confirmation bias.
    I’m going to start filming the trains, but since my commute is so short, my sample size will be very small. It would be nice to be able to access others’ data for a more thorough analysis, without having to comb through all those youtube videos.

    Does such a database already exist? Are there plans for how to analyze and compile this data that trainspotters are now collecting?
    Thank you for all your awesome work on this issue, Eric de Place! Please don’t let comments of some individuals discourage you from continuing the positive actions you are taking to evaluate and inform citizens of these important safety issues. Some of us do care, are willing/capable of evaluating the information, and want to take action to protect ourselves and our neighbors.

  10. Ed Lisowski says:

    I live in Yakima, WA, and we seem to have at least one 110-car oil train pass eastbound on the BNSF tracks every day. These cars are likely empty, based on the direction of travel. What I noticed recently is that BNSF is adding a box car behind the lead locomotives and before the final locomative at the end of the train. Since the tankers are empty, I am not sure this is a safety measure. Any ideas why?

    On a related issue, this is on a long stretch (maybe 120 miles–Tri-Cities to Ellensburg?) of BNSF track that is unsignalized. What I heard is that each train is given a warrant to use the tracks for a given amount of time, but the crews are not under direct control/supervision of the BNSF computer system.

  11. Robert says:

    I spotted an oil train last week, this was at Yelm Highway, in Thurston County, as the train passed by the Amtrak Centennial passenger station: http://youtu.be/71Ul2-bgRAo

  12. Ron Benner says:

    Yes, let’s not mine, transport, produce, manufacture,etc. anything. Let’s just allow foreign countries to do all of these things, with NO controls or regulations about air, water, and environmental concerns. After all, an invisible wall keeps the pollution from other parts of the globe from reaching the USA!

    Let’s never use nuclear energy, or any other technology that has the least chance of being hazardous. Instead of creating solutions, let’s just ignore reality.

    And, let’s not have any decent-paying jobs for working-class people; we can just support everyone with some sort of social programs. It’s always good for large numbers of people to feel hopeless about the future.

    How about some constructive opinions about some REAL solutions to the problems which occupy your mind. Meanwhile, most of us have to earn a living!!

    Ron Benner

    • Eric de Place says:

      I guess that’s one way to go about it, Ron.

      Personally, I’m more inclined toward an energy policy that phases out greenhouse gas emissions and ensures that the public is protected from the risk of exploding oil trains. Along those lines, I don’t see any compelling public interest in allowing the oil industry to double the volume of crude moving through the Northwest.

      But if you’d prefer to ship large volumes of coal, oil, and other resources abroad to support foreign manufacturing and heighten the risks of climate change, then I suppose we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  13. Ron Benner says:

    Thank you for engaging in a conversation about this subject.

    What energy policy do you advocate to phase out greenhouse gas emissions? Covering vast areas of land with solar cells or wind turbines does not seem like a viable solution. A bit of research will show that the megawatt capacity of a typical coal-fired base load generating station would require an extremely large solar or wind turbine replacement facility.Isn’t it wiser to continue to develop our clean-coal technology?

    The risk of fatalities from exploding oil trains is well below the risk of driving an automobile. That does not imply that we should not do everything possible to reduce the risk. But halting the transportation of vital commodities is not a realistic course of action. Air transportation usually results in large casualties when an accident occurs; we improve the safety of this transportation method, not curtail it.

    You must have misunderstood the point about foreign manufacturing. No one can fail to be concerned about the impact of foreign manufacturing on the availability of good jobs for working-class people in the USA. Big business makes a larger profit from making products in foreign countries because most of our foreign competitors do NOT have decent environmental protection laws. Let’s produce and ship raw materials here in our Country, and process and manufacture products and materials right here in the USA, where our environmental laws offer more protection of the earth’s climate than those of China and India, for example. If you think our laws are inadequate, advocate for better legislation, but propose REASONABLE solutions. It’s easy to say: “Let’s work to mitigate climate change”, but the crux of the matter is to find concrete solutions, not to shut down everything that, currently, is less than ideal.

    Shutting down oil and coal use, without a viable alternative, is like saying “who wants to live in a modern Country.”

    Ron Benner

    • Jeremy says:

      Ah, “clean coal,” too funny. Thanks for the laugh! No, it is not at all wise to continue burning through coal like crazy, regardless the questionable adjectives attached to coal, unless of course your goal is some sweet lucre from the most rapid possible conversion of one-time concentrated energy stores into pollution. Given that coal and et al. are all quite finite resources (and only a subset of those finite resources are even economic to extract, and to ignore the critical question of whether that even more limited subset is even ecologic to dig up and burn), America will cease being your so-called modern country regardless; the issue is whether this mandatory transition to using less energy is done willingly, or not. Observe oil busy pricing itself out of the market, the 96% downgrade of the Monterey Shale, and the recent total reversal of America’s energy independence forecasts by the IEA. No, falling back onto dirty coal and then pretending to be all surprised when that too prices itself out of viability is neither a reasonable nor wise plan towards the necessary steps of using less energy and generating less pollution.

      • Ron Benner says:

        What DO you propose? A specific answer would be desireable, for a change!!!

        By the way, coal is not turned into pollution, as you say. Pollution is an undesireable by-product, like the human exhalation of carbon dioxide. Clean-coal technology is concentrating on de-sulfurization, treatment of combustion gasses, etc. You may want to read somr REAL technical and scientific material, instead of the usual packaged opinions and uninformed opinions which are so common on the internet!

      • Christin says:

        Jeremy, “Clean coal” makes me laugh, too, except when I realize the meme is being constantly used to justify the “business-as-usual”, “I don’t need to change my behaviors”, “future generations will figure out a solution” attitude.

        Ron, perhaps in the future you can refrain from criticizing others’ lack of in-depth study when you may have failed to do so yourself.

        Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change. Carbon dioxide is therefore an atmospheric pollutant.

        If you understand the basic chemistry involved, why would you use the misleading meme “clean coal”? If you were referring to the attempts to reduce emissions of sulfur, ash, and heavy metals, then you are using an outdated/incomplete definition of the meme)… Coal companies and their representatives have been using the same meme “clean coal” to also promote their promised future attempts at better carbon capture and sequestration. The technology for capturing all of the pollutants involved in coal energy production does not yet exist. The closest we’ve gotten is the 96 million dollar Schwarze Pumpe plant in Germany, whose investor (Vattenfall) announced (in May 2014) they are discontinuing carbon capture and storage research to focus research on other energy sources.

        FYI, use of carbon industry memes like “clean coal” are often “red flags” to readers like myself that the person posting is trolling with an agenda other than informed and open-minded discussion/problem solving. I certainly hope that is not the case here. :)

        FYI, covering vast areas of land with solar panels turns out may be a potentially viable alternative. With newly developed/developing technologies, clean energy alternatives to carbon-based fuels can be achieved using the “vast areas” of land we already devote to our transportation system. (The lower 48 contribute ~112,610 square kilometers of roadway surfaces which could potentially produce 3x the amount of energy the US currently uses, given the efficiency rating of currently developed tech.) http://www.solarroadways.com/intro.shtml for more information.

        Back to the topic: The oil trains passing through our region are not on their way to “clean” burning facilities, they do not contribute to our local economies, and they do endanger our health and well being. Additionally, I haven’t read a single one of Eric’s posts and thought “he’s advocating for the cessation of oil by rail transportation”. In fact, I’m pretty sure that all of these posts have been about keeping oil companies from significantly increasing the rate at which they extract and transport oil through our region, thus increasing the rate at which they endanger us.

        Why do you think of oil as a “vital” commodity to modern living? Because modern living has developed a reliance upon cheap energy sources?

        Many people are already transforming their communities into modern communities which no longer rely on oil to survive or even thrive. Unfortunately, most of these communities are located in the UK, but we have a few of these communities, in the early stages of transformation, located in our region.

  14. Eric de Place says:

    Sightline has explored rather extensively the various ways that we can reduce our carbon emissions to a sustainable level while improving our economic well-being. You can find some our latest work here: http://daily.sightline.org/blog_series/cashing-in-our-carbon/

    Suffice it to say, there is ample reason to believe that we can substantially reduce our fossil fuel use while also building a stronger and fairer economy. Indeed, I think the two are inextricably linked.

    I do want to focus on the specific topic of this article though: oil trains. There’s no sense in which large scale oil-by-rail is “vital” to our economy. It produces very few jobs; it creates huge and essentially unmitigated risks of accident or spill; it ties up our rail network; and, ultimately, it’s not intended for our use. Consider that the real live oil-by-rail proposals in the Northwest would far outstrip the entire region’s refining capacity even if you deleted every tanker vessel and pipeline in the NW. The point is: this stuff is intended for someone/somewhere else, and we get all the downside.

  15. Vernon Huffman says:

    Burning fossil fuels is aggravating the worst problem humans have yet created, the buildup of atmospheric carbon that is changing our climate and acidifying the oceans. Rapid reversal is our best hope for the survival of our species.

    We could cut our energy use in half through conservation. For example, using efficient railroads and bicycles to replace inefficient cars would have a massive impact (Before you ask, yes, I’ve been car-free for 18 years). Direct use of sun for heating and lighting of well planned structures could also save vast quantities.

    Replace our outmoded grid with decentralized generation of power close to point of use through a variety of appropriate technologies including wind, small hydro, PV, and tides. It’s not hard to envision a system that works for people without fouling our own nest. Are we brave enough to step up to it?

  16. Gerri Songer says:

    I’m using the following camera to record in my backyard: http://www.walmart.com/ip/Moultrie-Trace-Perimeter-Surveillance-Camera/33669982. A journalist from the Chicago Tribune and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s office claimed to be interested in the documentation. Good luck you you in your area, and thank you for the idea!!!

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