Aug. 6, 2015 photo shows tracks used by oil trains
carrying crude from North Dakota's booming Bakken
Shale formation near residential housing on
Chicago's south side. In Chicago, which sees more
oil-train traffic than any other city in the
country, oil trains pose a special threat to cities
because of the tracks' close proximity to densely
packed neighborhoods and critical infrastructure.
— They rumble past schools, homes and businesses in
dozens of cities around the country — 100-car trains
loaded with crude oil from the Upper Midwest.
railroads have long carried hazardous materials through
congested urban areas, cities are now scrambling to
formulate emergency plans and to train firefighters amid
the latest safety threat: a fiftyfold increase in crude
shipments that critics say has put millions of people
living or working near the tracks at heightened risk of
derailment, fire and explosion.
series of fiery crashes, The Associated Press conducted a
survey of nearly a dozen big cities that, collectively,
see thousands of tank cars each week, revealing a
patchwork of preparedness. Some have plans specifically
for oil trains; others do not. Some fire departments have
trained for an oil train disaster; others say they're
planning on it. Some cities are sitting on huge quantities
of fire-suppressing foam, others report much smaller
surveyed emergency management departments in Chicago;
Philadelphia; Seattle; Cleveland; Minneapolis; Milwaukee;
Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Sacramento, California; Newark,
New Jersey; and Buffalo, New York. The responses show
emergency planning remains a work in progress even as
crude has become one of the nation's most common hazardous
materials transported by rail. Railroads carried some
500,000 carloads last year, up from 9,500 in 2008.
could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment,
spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or
event," said Wayne Senter, executive director of the
Washington state association of fire chiefs. "That's
what keeps us up at night."
this Monday, Dec 30, 2013 file photo, a fireball
explodes in the sky at the site of a crude oil train
derailment in Casselton, N.D. Several explosions
were reported as some cars on the mile-long train
caught fire. There were no casualties in the
comes from North Dakota's prolific Bakken Shale, an
underground rock formation where fracking and horizontal
drilling have allowed energy companies to tap previously
production boom has made oil trains a daily fact of life
in places like Philadelphia, where they roll past major
hospitals, including one for children. In Seattle, they
snake by sports stadiums used by the Seahawks and Mariners
before entering a 110-year-old tunnel under downtown. In
Chicago, they're a stone's throw from large apartment
buildings, a busy expressway and the White Sox's ballpark.
the rise of shale oil and the ethanol industry, hazardous
materials were typically shipped in just a handful of cars
in trains that hauled a variety of products. But the
trains now passing through cities consist entirely of tank
cars filled with flammable crude. These so-called unit
trains offer increased efficiency but magnify the risk
that hazardous materials will be involved in a derailment.
led some residents and emergency management experts to
worry it's just a matter of time before a catastrophic
derailment in a city, where, according to a 2014 U.S.
Department of Transportation analysis, a severe accident
could kill more than 200 people and cause $6 billion in
Phillips looks out his bedroom window directly
opposite train tracks where oil trains rumble past
his home several time a day on Chicago's south side
on July 29, 2015. While railroads have long carried
hazardous materials in congested urban areas, the
sudden and overwhelming surge in shipments of crude
by rail took cities by surprise, leaving them
scrambling to formulate emergency plans and train
summers ago, an oil-train derailment, explosion and fire
showed the power of such a disaster in even a small town,
when part of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, was leveled and 47
people died. There have been at least six oil-train
derailments in lightly populated areas of the U.S. and
Canada so far this year, most resulting in fires but none
several trains rumbling past his Chicago home each day,
Tony Phillips is keenly aware of the threat.
it happened here, we would be toast," said the
77-year-old painter, who lives with his wife in a
converted 19th-century factory in the Pilsen neighborhood
that shudders when one of the mile-long trains rattles
knows the chances of a crash right outside his bedroom
window are remote. Nevertheless, when he hears the trains
go by, "it gives me a little shiver," he said.
"It's like a ghost coming along with this tremendous
potential for destruction."
have responded with varying levels of urgency. Milwaukee,
for example, provided basic training in crude-by-rail
shipments and accidents to more than 800 firefighters,
sent its hazmat team to Colorado for advanced training on
oil-train accident response and meets regularly with
railroad officials. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, says it has not
yet conducted training exercises or met with railroad
officials but will do so once its oil-train emergency plan
federal level, new rules aim to reduce the chances of a
catastrophic derailment by lowering speed limits in
cities, ordering railroads to install electronic braking
systems and requiring a phase-in of stronger tank cars
beginning in 2018.
industry has challenged some rules in court while critics
say the standards don't go far enough, lamenting that tens
of thousands of older, rupture-prone tank cars will remain
on the tracks for years to come.
residents and activists also complain about a lack of
transparency from the railroads, which have fought to keep
details about oil-train routing and frequency from the
public, citing competitive and security concerns. The
federal government agreed in May to end its requirement
that railroads notify states about large shipments of
crude, but quickly reversed course amid a public backlash.
industry says it shares the information with those who
need it — local first responders. And, by and large,
cities told the AP they work closely with railroads on
emergency preparedness, getting information on cargoes and
routing, and taking part in tabletop simulations and live
of firefighters have traveled on the industry's dime to an
Association of American Railroads training facility near
Pueblo, Colorado, where tank cars are set ablaze for
practice. Thousands more practice diagnosing leaking tank
cars at free hazardous materials workshops the industry
holds around the country.
industry has recognized the concern that's been expressed
about moving this product. We've been doing increased
operational reviews, we've slowed down our trains, we've
increased track safety technology and track inspections,
as well as really stepping up preparedness and training
with first responders," said Ed Greenberg, spokesman
for the railroad association.
the industry's safety record has improved. Freight-train
derailments have been cut nearly in half since 2004, with
the number falling to 1,210 last year from 2,350 a decade
earlier, according to federal statistics.
industry does not want derailments," said National
Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart.
"That's the bottom line."
crashes involving oil trains has heightened concern.
Politicians and activists from Minnesota to New Jersey are
calling for the trains to be rerouted away from densely
populated areas. Activists in Philadelphia question
whether the city has adequately communicated its
evacuation plans with residents who would have to leave
quickly after an accident.
Nixon said she never would have bought her south
Philadelphia rowhouse had she known oil trains would
rumble past at all hours of the day and night. She's
thought about moving, but "how would I sell my
am concerned for my own safety, as well as my
neighbors'," said Nixon, 30, who lives three doors
down from a 1.2-mile-long railroad bridge and chatted with
a reporter as an oil train chugged by.
from Nixon's home lies a massive oil refinery that has
turned Philadelphia into one of the nation's top
destinations for North Dakota crude. The trains taking it
there come within feet of downtown office buildings and
fancy condominium complexes, as well as rowhouse
neighborhoods, schools, parks and small businesses. They
run parallel to the Schuylkill River, which supplies half
the city's drinking water.
of thousands of people live within the half-mile
evacuation zone that federal officials recommend if
there's a catastrophic derailment. The city has avoided
disaster, but a January 2014 derailment on a bridge — in
which six cars filled with crude leaned precariously over
the Schuylkill — highlighted the risk.
am confident in our ability to handle a big disaster, but
I do not dismiss that a major crude oil accident could be
quite destructive," Samantha Phillips, Philadelphia's
director of emergency management, said in an email.
because if an oil train derails, ruptures and explodes,
much of the damage is already done before emergency
responders even get the call, noted Donald Kunkle,
executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire &
Emergency Services Institute.
you have a catastrophic failure of a tank car in an urban
area," he said, "it's going to be a difficult
day no matter how effective the fire response is."