A single unit train “can haul 81,000 barrels of crude,” says a brochure sent to oil companies by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the largest oil shipping railway in North America. The brochure captures the boom-time feel of the sector. “BNSF moved 100 million barrels of crude in 2012, and is ready to ship significantly more in the years ahead.”
But inside the industry, railways and regulators knew of the possible danger of transporting such vast quantities of crude.
Internal U.S. government documents probing tanker car explosions in 2012 show the Washington-based National Transportation Safety Board was not only aware of potential problems, but concerned about the possibility of a major accident caused by oil unit trains. And if such a derailment were to occur, the board feared the consequences could be exponentially bigger, given the amount of crude being transported.
With the “increasing number of unit train shipments” happening in North America, “the risks are greater because of high concentrations of hazardous materials,” warned the documents, which were part of an internal report. “Existing standards and regulations [are] insufficient.”
No limits on crude
On the night the oil train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, several things went catastrophically wrong. As has been well documented in the months since the crash, the train, operated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, was parked for the night and left unattended, and began to roll down a hill towards the town after the brakes had been improperly applied, picking up speed as it went. When the train crashed, the crude tankers erupted in a series of devastating blasts.
While much of that can be chalked up to human error, the retired inspectors who agreed to speak to The Globe say there is a bigger picture that governments and regulators need to address. Had a unit train comprised of grain, coal or lumber rolled down the same hill, the cars would have still derailed, but the results would not have been nearly as deadly. Oil is different. Eyewitnesses report seeing multiple explosions coming from the 72-car Lac-Mégantic oil train within seconds of the crash, as the crude began to catch fire. Numerous people reported seeing mushroom clouds in the night sky.
But even though oil unit trains are different, and more hazardous, than typical trains, Transport Canada and U.S. regulators did not draw up extra safeguards as the industry began to experience rapid growth. The Globe investigated the rules governing how railroads can ship oil and found most of the operating procedures are set by the railways themselves.
For example, there are no restrictions on how many cars of oil a railway can transport, even though stringing together dozens of cars of oil can create a bigger danger of explosion. The only limit on how much oil can move on the tracks, and ultimately through cities and towns, is dictated by the length of sidings the company has on its line.
The sidings, which are tracks that run parallel to the main line, allow trains to pull over so that another can pass. Currently, the largest sidings in North America allow for 120-car trains. But there is already talk within the industry of constructing longer sidings so that railways can ship up to 140 cars, or more, using unit trains of oil. It amounts to self-regulation: At present, Transport Canada has no rules to regulate the amount of crude riding on the rails.
There are also no rules telling railways how they should assemble their oil trains, including where in the load to place buffer cars, which could help keep fires from spreading, and possibly prevent explosions in the event of a crash.
Many of the rules for shipping hazardous materials were written for trains comprised of mixed goods, called manifest trains, where smaller shipments of dangerous cargo are interspersed with other loads.
The rapidly growing oil-by-rail industry is governed by safety measures that never contemplated kilometre-long shipments of crude.
“There are, in the regulations, car placement requirements,” said Mr. Pritchard, who retired as a U.S. Department of Transportation safety inspector in 2010. “You can’t have a [hazardous materials] tank car next to a shiftable load, like a car carrying steel girders or telephone poles.” The rules also state that hazardous materials must be six cars away from the caboose.
But those rules are out of touch with modern railway practices. For one thing, the railway industry stopped using cabooses in the 1980s. The guidelines haven’t been updated.
The only fixed rule that oil unit trains must follow when they assemble their cars is to place a buffer car, which is either empty or full of a non-hazardous material such as gravel, between the locomotives and the first tanker car. In that regard, the train that exploded at Lac-Mégantic was fully compliant with current regulations.