Featured on Bloomberg Business.
A week after a CSX train hauling crude oil derailed and exploded 30 miles southeast of Charleston, W.Va., on Feb. 16, its mangled, charred tank cars were still being hauled from the crash site. Of the 27 cars that derailed, 19 had been engulfed in flames. The wreckage burned for almost three days. “It’s amazing no one was killed,” says John Whitt, whose home is one of a handful clustered near the crash site, along the banks of the Kanawha River. Some were within 30 yards of the site. One home was destroyed.
Exploding oil trains—this was only the latest in a series—have emerged as a dangerous side effect of the U.S. energy boom. A lack of pipelines connecting new fields in North Dakota and Texas to refineries and shipping terminals has led to an almost 5,000 percent increase in the amount of oil moved by trains since 2009. Much of it is carried in tank cars designed a half-century ago that regulators have long deemed inadequate for hauling the highly flammable types of crude coming out of North Dakota.
The West Virginia accident came less than a month after the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a proposal for new safety standards to the White House for approval. The rules were supposed to have been submitted at the end of last year but were delayed amid lobbying from railroads, oil producers, and tank car manufacturers. Part of the problem has been crafting regulation that’s broad enough to address a range of safety issues—including speed limits, braking systems, and track maintenance—but that can also withstand potential legal challenges from the affected industries. “All the stakeholders have their opinions, and they are aggressive in protecting their turf,” says Joe Szabo, who stepped down as head of the Federal Railroad Administration in January.
The Transportation Department is pressing the industry to make further improvements. Under the latest version of the draft regulation, tank cars would have to have even thicker shells and better brakes and valves. Even then, analysts say, risks will remain. “You could make tank cars resemble Army tanks, and it still isn’t going to stop accidents,” says Brigham McCown, a former administrator at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.