States seek more information and control over oil train shipments

By Bill Holloway

As shipments of crude oil by rail have climbed dramatically in recent years, high profile derailments and explosions—the worst being the 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster—have put the issue high on the list of public concerns. As noted in a recent article by Daniel Vock in Governing, state legislators are looking to increase oversight and be better positioned to handle derailments and resulting fires by asserting their authority over rail carriers moving oil in their states. Washington State applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for cleanups of potential spills, and other states are also trying to assure that oil companies will play a role in preventing and cleaning up after spills.

While crude oil is not normally considered highly flammable, the type produced in North Dakota’s Bakken fields is uniquely volatile, making derailments particularly dangerous and spurring public and private sector policy changes, as noted in this March SSTI newsletter article.

As noted by Vock, federal regulations now require that railroads conduct additional safety inspections, upgrade their oil train cars, and notify states when and where oil trains will pass through their borders. Railroads sought to force states to sign non-disclosure agreements about the location of oil trains but a number of states refused, and a Maryland judge recently ruled against Norfolk Southern and CSX in their effort to block the state from releasing details of their oil shipments.

A recent report produced for Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf, focusing on the safety issues associated with rail shipments of crude oil found that while human factors are the leading cause of train accidents in the U.S. overall, accounting for 40 percent of incidents, accidents occurring on mainline tracks—where most major oil train accidents occur—are most often due to track problems such as broken rails and poor track geometry.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.