Brigham McCown, pipeline safety expert, train safety expert

Originally published on, article written by Maria Gallucci

The fiery derailments of two trains carrying crude oil this week are raising fresh concerns about the safety of moving oil by rail. Recent accidents in West Virginia and Ontario come as federal regulators and transportation companies struggle to address a rapid rise in oil tanker trains due to the North American energy boom.

In West Virginia on Monday, a CSX freight train hauling up to 3.2 million gallons of oil derailed near the village of Boomer, launching fireballs 300 feet in the air and dumping crude into a river. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a state of emergency, and more than 2,000 residents were evacuated that evening. Local water supplies were shut off over concerns of contamination.

Late last Saturday, a 100-car oil train derailed in northern Ontario on its way to Alberta, with seven cars catching fire in a remote wooded area. CN Rail says the oil spilled from the train has been contained and doesn’t appear to have seeped into waterways.

The region’s railroads are moving greater volumes of crude as drillers increasingly tap U.S. shale oil resources, particularly in North Dakota and Texas. Existing pipeline infrastructure isn’t enough to carry all the added supply to market, so companies are turning to the rails to fill the gap.

U.S. railcar loadings of oil and petroleum products jumped 13.4 percent from January to October 2014, compared with the same period in 2013, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Tank cars totaled more than 672,000 during that 10-month stretch, compared with just 9,500 loads for all of 2008. That figure could jump again in 2015 as oil production climbs. The EIA projects U.S. oil production will reach 9.3 million barrels a day this year, up 8 percent over 2014.

Crude oil is not necessarily more dangerous than other “hazardous materials,” such as ethanol and chlorine, which are also hauled by trains across the country. But while other substances are moved in only a handful of cars per trainload — reducing the risk of damage during an accident — crude oil is transported in trains with more than 100 cars, said Brigham McCown, a transportation expert and former chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, the federal agency in charge of tank car safety.

“When you have 100-plus cars that are transporting one single [hazardous] commodity, extra care and attention needs to be paid to those trains to avoid derailment,” he said by phone.