Bomb Trains: a whole new spin on the 1%

Repost from The Martinez Gazette

Martinez Environmental Group: The 1 percenters

May 8, 2014 | by GUY COOPER,  Special to the Gazette

This is not about income inequality. Doesn’t involve Warren Buffett or the Koch brothers (er, not directly anyway). This is about oil train safety.

Another crude oil train just derailed this past week, exploding cars dumped into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia. Could have been much worse. A 100-car oil train right in town. Could have destroyed the town. But it was only going 24 miles per hour, was properly operated and apparently had no mechanical problems. It’s thought the ground along the riverbank gave way beneath the tracks. That’s comforting.

In the midst of this crude-by-rail (CBR) rush, the railroads repeatedly tout a 99 percent safety record. Really? What does that mean? Ninety-nine percent of what? How do you account for all of these accidents lately?

Amazing how fast this CBR infrastructure ramped up. An almost 50-fold increase in six years. I have no idea how something like that can be accomplished, but I do know they didn’t sweat all the small stuff like, oh, issues of life and death, health and safety.

U.S. rail is reported to have spilled more oil in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, 1.15 million gallons. That figure doesn’t even include Canadian spills like the 1.5 million gallons at Lac Megantic alone. The Association of American Railroads reported carrying about 434,000 carloads of crude last year, 12.5 billion gallons, so a few million gallons spilled here or there is just a drop in the bucket. The rail industry quotes a 99.998 percent safety record based on billion tons per mile successfully delivered to its destination. In other words, if one car of a 100-car train falls off the tracks, splits open and blows up, but the rest of the cargo survives unscathed, the safety rating of that train remains 99 percent.

I guess that’s a useful stat to entice oil producers, but it’s not what interests me. I want to know how often the trains run into trouble. A 2013 U.S. State Department assessment comparing pipeline to rail noted trains have an “increased likelihood of spills.” The more trains, the more likely an accident. From 2008 to 2013, the annual number of carloads of crude on the rails jumped from around 9,500 to over 400,000. The number of accidents likewise skyrocketed.

Perhaps a more useful way to look at things from our side of the tracks comes from a Tim Truscott Facebook page that maintains a running list of bomb train derailments in North America ( train-derailments/250370288468161). Found it via Roger Straw’s terrifically informative blog across the water, The Benicia Independent (

Mr. Truscott states, “By ‘bomb train,’ I mean those trains hauling one or more cars of crude oil, fuel oil, ethanol, methanol, propane, butane, liquified natural gas (methane), vinyl chloride, ammonium nitrate or high-nitrogen fertilizer such as anhydrous ammonia, phosphoric acid or some other highly volatile or especially toxic or caustic cargo. I’m also counting derailments if the engine or engines derail and cause a diesel fuel spill. So far in North America in 2014, we have seen an average of one bomb train derailment every five days.”

He lists 23 incidents so far this year. I suppose that’s just 1 percent of something. I prefer to think of it as one per week.

So when I hear that whistle blow and I halt my walk to the waterfront as the next oil train passes, I’ll have to wonder. Is that this week’s one percenter coming down the line?