America’s oil boom has resulted in a tremendous increase in the amount of crude oil being carried by trains, especially on routes crisscrossing the middle section of the country. In 2008, the Association of American Railroads said that 9,500 carloads of crude oil were transported by rail. Last year, that number jumped to 400,000. That’s right, from less than 10,000 to 400,000 in the span of only five years.
The reason is that as oil production ramped up, companies failed to plan for how the oil would be carried to refineries and have now been forced to rely on train shipments of the extraordinarily hazardous and flammable materials. Today, two-thirds of all the oil produced in the Bakken field in North Dakota is transported on rails due to a shortage of usable pipelines. Experts say that trains move more than 10 percent of the country’s total oil supply.
The massive amount of oil being shipped by train has led to an increasing number of troubles. According to the New York Times, there have been 10 large-scale oil spills in North America in only the last nine months. The paper said that federal records reveal that the amount of oil spilled by trains in the U.S. in 2013 was far higher than all the oil spilled by trains between 1975 and 2012.
Safety experts say that the oil transport business basically sprung up overnight and, as such, has a long way to go to improve safety, both for employees and members of the public located near busy railways. Some say that the nature of the business makes it difficult for any one group to take action and improve conditions. The problem is that many different companies are involved in the oil transportation business, those that extract the oil, those that own the tanker cars carrying the oil and those that run the railroads themselves.
Federal safety officials have tried to take action on the issue, meeting with railroad executives earlier this month to start the process of improving industry safety. The executives agreed to consider slowing down trains or rerouting them away from populated areas. They also agreed to more seriously consider changes to the standard tanker cars used to carry oil.
Everyone agrees that the industry has a long way to go before workers and members of the public are truly safe. The stakes are high and getting higher. According to industry estimates, oil production in the U.S. has increased by more than 50 percent in only the last five years and similar increases are projected for the future. Without serious changes, the number of accidents will only continue to rise, risking the lives of countless innocent railroad employees.
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