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Shipping Oil By Rail: The Opposition Grows

by on July 4, 2014

With the ominous first year anniversary of the Lac Megantic tragedy almost upon us, the controversy over shipping oil by rail continues to gather momentum, remaining squarely in the public spotlight.

It’s not a position that the rail industry could have even imagined finding itself in only a year ago, facing unprecedented media attention, escalating public opposition, and scathing criticism from elected officials regarding the serious questions that shipping crude by rail has raised.

Lac Megantic was the event that has changed everything for the rail industry.

Now an American organization, Oil Change International, ( has published a comprehensive account of the rail industry’s swift, massive, and obsessive pursuit of the shipment of crude, on both sides of the border.

Oil Change International refers to itself as being “a research, communication, and advocacy organization focused on exposing the true costs of fossil fuels and facilitating the coming transition towards clean energy.”

It’s a must-read for anyone interested in just how crude has become king for rail over a very few short years, to the detriment of the environment, communities, and even to other rail customers.

Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude-By-Rail in North America is a detailed A to Z primer that “tracks the rise of crude-by-rail in North America, detailing where crude trains are being loaded and unloaded, how many trains carrying crude oil are crossing the North American continent, and who is involved in this burgeoning trade.”

price of oil rail map

(The above interactive map can be found by visiting Oil Change International’s Crude-by-Rail Resource Hub at

The report is the first in a series covering North America’s booming crude-by-rail industry, with future editions examining the economics of crude-by-rail, safety, and climate change issues.”

Sounding the Alarm on Rail Oil Shipments

It’s an alarming and shocking account of just how fast this industry has taken off in a radically different direction on its own, and off the public radar while doing so, until a year ago.

The report is notably “dedicated to the 47 people who lost their lives on July 6, 2013 when a train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded in the town center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.”

Oil Change states that “the growth of crude-by-rail in North America has been primarily driven by the relentless growth in fracked oil (known as light tight oil), which is at the heart of America’s ongoing oil boom.”

Shocking Findings

Key findings in the report include the following:

-There are currently “188 terminals in Canada and the United States actively loading and unloading crude oil onto and off of trains. At least 33 of these terminals are expanding their capacity to handle more crude. An additional 51 new terminals are under construction or planned.”

-“Over 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil were shipped on U.S. railroads in 2013, a 70-fold increase from 2005. Including Canada, total North American crude-by-rail shipments are currently around one million bpd. By 2016 capacity could grow to over 5.1 million bpd.

-“BNSF, owned by Warren Buffet, carries up to 70 percent of all the crude-by-rail traffic in North America today. This railroad alone expects to load one million barrels per day onto its network by the end of 2014.”

No Exploding Oil Trains

The report states that “the safety of transporting crude oil, ethanol, and other hazardous materials by rail came sharply into focus with the Lac-Mégantic incident. Subsequent accidents have shown that far from being an isolated incident, Lac-Mégantic was indicative of a disturbing aspect of the ongoing North American oil boom.”

Oil Change notes that “there were 117 crude-by-rail spills in the U.S. alone in 2013, a near tenfold rise on 2008. As the industry rushes to exploit resources as quickly and as profitably as it can, the safety of North American communities and the integrity of North American land, water, and air resources are put at risk. Regulators in both the U.S. and Canada were asleep at the wheel when Lac-Mégantic happened, having no specific regulations in place for a high-risk activity that within just a few years had grown almost 70-fold by the time this tragic loss of life occurred. Safety measures that would genuinely protect the public remain unsanctioned.”

Future reports planned by Oil Change will look in more detail at the safety and regulatory issues as well as the economics of crude-by-rail and the implications for climate change.

Rail Customers on Both Sides of the Border Paying for a Crude Obsession

On the subject of grain shipments, Oil Change has this to say:

“Since late 2013, a disturbing trend has emerged on the nation’s railways. Not only are trains full of crude derailing and exploding with frightening regularity, but crude oil trains are also pushing other rail traffic off the rails, notably grain and people.”

“Following a bumper harvest of wheat and canola on the Canadian prairies in 2013, grain suppliers found themselves struggling to get their product to market as they played second fiddle to crude oil on North America’s rail network. In January 2014, Bloomberg noted that Canadian grain shipments to export terminals in Vancouver were two months behind schedule.”

“Ken Bruch, vice president of operations for Paterson Global Foods Inc. told the news agency that ‘it’s looking more and more that grain is becoming second choice to oil….grain ships have been left waiting in the Port of Vancouver at a cost of up to $20,000.00 (CA) per day.

Apparently, the American grain industry is also suffering.

Moving crude by rail has definitely impacted our ability to supply our facilities” said Sam Snyder, director of corporate development for Minneapolis-based Grain Millers Inc.

Passenger Rail Also Being Affected by Crude Service Interruptions

Oil Change notes that “Crude trains have also caused eight to ten hour delays to Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train service, which runs through North Dakota on its way to and from Chicago, Portland, and Seattle. “

“According to Ross Capon, president of the National Rail Passengers Association, ‘the train acts as a vital transportation link for hundreds of rural communities to essential services in urban population centers’ and is Amtrak’s most popular overnight service.”

“The route, which in North Dakota relies on track owned by BNSF, currently skips three stops in an effort to regain lost time on the journey due to the delays caused by crude trains. Passengers wishing to travel to those destinations in North Dakota now have to disembark the train at 3 a.m. and board buses to get to their destinations.”

We highly recommend that anyone interested in how rapidly the rail industry is transforming itself in order to cater to crude visit this organization’s site.

The train has quite literally left the station with no one noticing – until now.

Week of Action Planned

Anyone wishing to take their concerns about oil trains may also wish to note the following announcement by Oil Change:

“Join us July 6th – 13th for a continent-wide week of action in opposition to crude-by-rail. Together with ForestEthics,, The Sierra Club, residents of Lac-Mégantic, and concerned citizens across North America, we’re standing up to Big Oil and demanding their killer oil trains be taken off the tracks.”

You can join an action or host your own by visiting


Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:



Sources for this article and photos include:

-Oil Change International (

-Stop Oil Trains (


© Copyright 2014

  1. OSR - Jeff Willsie permalink

    Hi Train Jane You should lobby for pipe lines, I think they are safer. Unfortunately many folks are lobbying against them. As long as folks are driving cars, flying, heating their homes, eating(all grocery’s are delivered by truck to the store) there will be a tremendous demand for oil based fuels I think more nuclear generating should be built to power trains of the future. Electric cars should be mandatory in city’s but first the auto manufactures will have to build one that has a reasonable range. Ontario has initiated a lot of solar & wind projects but folks are complaining about the high cost of electricity. People need to make a major lifestyle change to reduce the need for oil then there will be less transportation of it. As long as the people create a demand for oil it will move! If not by pipeline then by rail. If not by rail then by truck. If not at all then no more gas at the pumps. Jeff Willsie

    • trainjane permalink

      Thank you for agreeing that pipelines are safer, Mr. Willsie. I won’t be lobbying for pipelines either, although I also believe them to be safer than shipping oil by rail. My thought is that far more effort must be put into clean energy sources.

      We have geothermal power on the family farm now, and it works great!

  2. Lara Murphy permalink

    great read! Lara Murphy 403-542-7530

    • trainjane permalink

      Thank you for your compliment!

  3. 7-10-2014

    Yet again another CN train derailment. The added cost of more safety & regulation cannot compare to the damage CN & the rest do when left to their own devices. TSB accident reports site rampant disrespect for procedure & widespread faulty & poorly maintained equipment! The rail companies must be choosing the cost of damage control over safety measures & equipment maintenance because when a derailment occurs the public & the government split the costs. This has to stop!

    Write a letter to Lisa Raitt & the other members of parliament.

    • trainjane permalink

      I personally think that railways should be required to contribute to a pooled insurance fund to be used to pay for damage caused by rail accidents; it’s ridiculous sticking taxpayers with these costs. Surely, we have learning something after Lac Megantic as to how large these costs can be.

  4. 7/15/2014

    The ink hasn’t yet dried on the Brockville, ON CN derailment & already I’m reading about the latest derailment in Faust, Alberta literally days later.

    So many issues surrounding these derailments (i.e. we should refine the oil in Canada, we should get off oil, poorly regulated rail industry). but we must remain focused if we are to achieve any success with our noise complaints.

    Proponents of increased regulations towards noise & vibrations issues should get behind a lobby focused on reducing derailments. The solutions to derailments (i.e. upgraded equipment, stricter regulation, etc) will positively impact noise & vibration issues.

    • trainjane permalink

      Ed, I am hoping there might just be an opportunity forthcoming in this regard. More info to follow.

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