Oil Spills from Railcars Last Year Outnumber the Previous Four Decades

Worried about Keystone XL? You might want to also take a second look at that choo-choo train moving through your backyard right now. Trains are moving more crude oil than ever before — in fact, it’s estimated that by this year, trains from North Dakota alone will be moving almost as much oil per day as Keystone XL would. While the train industry prides itself on a 99.99% success rate when it comes to smoothly transporting crude oil, that .01% actually amounts to a whole lot of oil when you’re talking about the huge volume carried by the industry. So much, in fact, that the oil spills associated with trains in 2013 exceeded those of the previous four decades combined.

In 1975, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started collecting and compiling data on oil spills from trains. Between then and 2012, 800 million gallons of crude oil were spilled on railcars across the United States. In 2013, 1.15 million gallons were spilled, some in catastrophic accidents. A Canadian Pacific Railway train en route from Canada derailed in March, for example, while a rural derailment in Alabama was accompanied by an impressive explosion. Neither incident held a candle to the horrific Canadian train explosion that killed 47 people last year (it wasn’t included in the total because it didn’t take place on U.S. soil).

What’s happening here? The first issue is that more oil than ever before is going by train, as discussed above. When you increase the volume of a commodity being transported, even if the safety record remains the same, the rate of incidents will still go up, keeping pace with the increased amount of oil being carried. With railcars carrying oil back and forth across the United States growing in numbers, oil spills are going up too, with regions like North Dakota bearing the brunt of it because of the extremely high rail traffic they experience.

Furthermore, the type of oil being transported has changed. Unlike light sweet crude, the highly valued oil once preferred by oil and gas companies across the country, many of these trains are carrying a particularly dangerous form of heavy crude oil. It’s more volatile, which translates to more catastrophic incidents during derailments and collisions — explaining why several recent incidents have included massive explosions and spilled oil that continues to burn for days even after fire suppressant is laid down.

These incidents don’t just cause fires and problems at the time. They also contaminate soil and waterways, leading to long-term health and environmental problems. In areas with a high number of oil spills, the concentration of petroleum-related chemicals and byproducts poses a significant risk to human health, especially for developing fetuses, which may in turn cause clusters of developmental and intellectual impairments for children growing up in such environments. Meanwhile, fish, birds,and other animals are struggling to survive in the oily landscape.

Washington is responding to the problem with a task force that will discuss changes to routes, tanker design, speed limits and other regulations surrounding the transport of crude oil by rail. These changes will hopefully improve the safety record for rail companies and protect communities, but they won’t eradicate the fundamental problem: the United States needs to turn to more renewable and environmentally-friendly sources of energy before it’s too late.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson.


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

When will we learn, cheapest isn't always best.

Doug G. what are paradigms and what are they not doing?

Gotta stop now. This site stopped working on my computer. Maybe I will try later. Don't hold breath.

Doug G.
Doug G3 years ago

We need new paradigms. The present ones aren't working.

Sandra Bilek
Sandra Bilek3 years ago

Add to this railcar situation, the alarming increase in pipeline accidents, spills, compressor station explosions, inadequate response / regulations by NTSB, FERC, USDOT, alarming increase in gas explosions in homes, businesses, this is a major problem.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana G3 years ago

Instead of revaluating tanker designs, which will cost a lot of money, the funding and effort should go to clean energy before it's too late.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Did you know there is 20 million dollars to relocate people from the gulf? And that there is more waiting if that isn't enough? The gulf area was hit again with a leak from a ship? The larger plans seem to be to move people out and petroleum in, making a oil industry out of the gulf area.
That is why oil companies are fighting so hard. The gulf will be the big industry area and money making for the oil people. And the rest of us will pay. I am so done with these people.

william Miller
william Miller3 years ago

no matter where it is there is more and more of that shit spilling it is time to stop!

Ron G.
Ron G3 years ago


We started the 401K's at work because the employer contributed a percentage of it to us, and now they increasingly want to back out while reducing other benefits of ours, and we let this happen without bargaining. Time to grow up. We have kids to educate.

Ron G.
Ron G3 years ago

Oil transportation by any method is done with greed in mind before ecology preservation. The Pipeline people and their bought politicians are pushing the facts and figures of spills due to movement on wheels and water as their reason for pipelines. Please, I claim that we are smarter than that. Oil people want our tax monies used for their profit, whether it's cheaper and faster oil production costs by pipeline or for fixing roads, rails, and waterways for them. Everything is for their profit. When what we should be doing is committing our investments into alternative energies to rid us of the need for dirty fuels. Solar and wind just need commitment. Gas burning vehicles can be replaced by electric powered and fueled by solar capture powered electric fueling stations. By doing so also reduces the oil energy influence on politicians so they can commit to our needs first. Worth hoping foe anyway. WE don't commit because we let them tell us it is not doable. Sure it is, like it's possible to better our healthcare and reduce costs of pharmaceuticals. It's been done, and can be better if we commit to what we want and not what they tell us we want. Energy CANNOT and WILLNOT clean up their uncaring messes if we p paying for them and not forcing them to do it. Don't bother the banks with your paychecks, just send them to the oil people if you won't fight for us. We claim not to be stupid people but we prove we are everyday we let others spend our money foolishly. We started the 401K

Anne Moran
Anne M3 years ago

Oil, oil, and more oil...

Gotta have it, can't live without it...