This July 8, 2013,
file photo provided by Surete du Quebec, shows
wrecked oil tankers and debris from a derailment in
Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. Part of the city was
leveled and 47 people died.
PHILADELPHIA — They rumble past schools, homes and
businesses in dozens of cities around the country —
100-car trains loaded with crude oil from the Upper
While 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
After a 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 stockpiles. The AP 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.
A fireball explodes in the sky
at the site of a crude oil train derailment in
Casselton, N.D. on Dec 30, 2013.
oil 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-yearold tunnel under
downtown. In Chicago, they’re a stone’s throw from large
apartment buildings, a busy expressway and the White
Before 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.
has 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 damage.
would be toast’
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 in deaths.
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
77year-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 past.
Phillips 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.’’
Cities 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 is complete.