Crowdsourced train-spotting in New York: The case of the disappearing crude-oil tank cars

Repost from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
[Editor: …with apologies for auto-loading video.  – RS]

The case of the disappearing crude-oil tank cars

Steve Orr, September 4, 2014

Trains carrying crude oil pass regularly through the Rochester area these days. But which of two routes through Monroe County is CSX Transportation using?

Readers helped us answer that question, and in the process, revealed something of a mystery about our oil-train traffic.

The traffic is pretty much one way.

Oil trains are big news these days. The volume of crude oil being transported by rail has skyrocketed, and there’s particular concern about the crude that’s being hauled every day across upstate New York. That oil, which originates in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and environs, is much more volatile than other crude and hence more dangerous in the event of a derailment or other accident. There have been several fiery incidents involving Bakken oil trains, including one last year in Quebec, Canada that claimed 47 lives.

Between 20 and 35 oil trains travel across upstate each week, passing through Monroe County on their way to Albany, CSX reported to New York state not long ago.

As we in turn reported wrote in July, there’s evidence that CSX prefers to send oil trains on a route through the suburbs south of Rochester versus the one that passes through the heart of the city. The railroad itself seemed to indicate as much on a map in its report to the state, and a Rochester fire officer said he’d been told the same. But a Henrietta fire chief said something different, and the railroad itself wouldn’t provide us verification when we asked.

So we turned to crowdsourcing – asking readers to help by telling us where and when they observed oil trains moving through the county. In the ensuing weeks, we received about 40 reports of unique oil-train movements through Monroe County.

The resulting data are unscientific, to be sure and probably don’t reflect the full picture. For instance, no one reported seeing an oil train earlier than 7:15 am or later than 10:30 pm. But that’s probably because most prospective witnesses are at home during those hours.

Still, our reader reports were heavily skewed toward the suburban route known as the West Shore line. Seventy-four percent of the sightings of oil trains took place on the West Shore, with the other 26 percent in the more urban freight corridor, known as the Main Line.

That fits with what we’d heard: Oil trains are routed onto the West Shore when that track is available. If it’s not, they use the Main Line. (That choice also makes some sense from a risk assessment standpoint; my calculations showed population density is twice as high along the Main Line as the West Shore.)

But our crowdsourcing reports found something else interesting – 86 percent of the oil trains were headed east when our witnesses saw them. The balance were headed west.

Why? Well, consider this: Inferring from the trains-per-county data that CSX included in its report to the state, most of the oil that crosses upstate continues south from Albany via rail, undoubtedly heading for refineries in the Philadelphia-New Jersey area or elsewhere in the East.

But 15 to 25 percent of the trains terminate their runs in Albany, the CSX data show. Presumably, they’re taking advantage of the newly thriving (though controversial) business of floating crude oil in barge down the Hudson River and on to the refineries.

That coincides quite nicely with our readers’ reports that only about 15 percent of the trains they saw were westbound, doesn’t it?

So maybe that’s the deal: Trains that dump their volatile cargoes in Albany are hightailing it back to the Northern Plains to pick up more crude. But the tanker cars that travel south from Albany to unload their oil — if they’re returning to the Bakken for a refill, maybe they’re going a more roundabout way.

Mystery solved?