MORE DOMESTIC OIL, MORE TRAINS
The Lynchburg train derailment and fire comes amid a surge in domestic oil drilling that has prompted oil companies to move increasing amounts of crude by rail over the past several years. The number of carloads of crude shipped on major US railroads skyrocketed from fewer than 10,000 in 2008 to 415,000 last year, according to the Association of American Railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration. The largest concentration of tank cars is coming out of the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where there is limited capacity to move crude using pipelines, historically the industry's transportation mode of choice.
Much the oil is being hauled by a fleet of tens of thousands of flawed tank cars that are prone to rupture during derailments. That can set off massive fires when the cars that carry more than 30,000 gallons of oil each break open and explode. Exacerbating the potential hazard is the high volatility of oil from the Bakken — a sweet, light crude that regulators say contains higher concentrations of explosive gases than conventional heavy crudes.
Some companies have been accused of misclassifying cars carrying Bakken crude, setting the stage for firefighters or other first responders to potentially underestimate the combustibility of the oil when they are dealing with a derailment.
STRING OF ACCIDENTS
The proliferation of oil-carrying trains has led to a spike in accidents.
Prior to Lynchburg, there were eight significant rail accidents involving crude oil in the U.S. and Canada since March, 2013, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. That includes the July derailment of an oil train in Quebec that slammed into the town of Lac-Megantic, triggering an explosion and fire that killed 47 people and levelled a downtown neighborhood.
In response to the accidents, the U.S government has said it will more aggressively enforce tank car classification rules so that volatile oil shipments aren't mislabeled. Companies still lack specific testing requirements for the crude, and the oil industry has said it could be another month or more before it comes out with new industry standards.
Meanwhile, railroads in February agreed to take some steps of their own, including slowing trains from 50 to 40 miles per hour through major cities, increasing the frequency of track inspections and improved emergency response planning along routes that carry oil trains. However, those rules are voluntary and federal officials have said they don't have any direct enforcement powers to make sure the railroads are following through.