Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning New York City think tank, was among the first to assemble an in-depth look at the risks. Between 2005 and 2009, U.S. hazardous materials pipelines, she found, had 0.61 spills per billion barrel miles. Railways had 20.5 – a spill rate 34 times higher. (Trucks were far worse yet, at 651.)
“It’s very striking that pipelines are definitely the safest,” she said. She added: “We need to be building more pipelines, especially with all the oil and gas production that’s going on in North America. I think that’s the message to policy makers.”
The rail industry, in its own analysis, came to a friendlier number: a spill frequency 2.6 times that of pipelines. The American Association of Railroads has also determined that trains leak smaller amounts. “Railways spill less of their hazardous liquid product than do pipelines, 9 per cent less per billion barrel miles over the 20-year period 1990-2009 and 35 per cent less over the 2002-2009 period,” the association said.
That conclusion is borne out in some of the worst spills in recent years. CN, for example, leaked 4,400 barrels of Bunker C in Wabamun; a 2009 derailment and explosion near Rockford, Ill., lost 7,700 barrels. Pipeline spills have been worse: Enbridge Inc. leaked 20,082 barrels near Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2010, while Plains Midstream Canada spilled 28,000 in northern Alberta in 2011.
CN, in a statement, said: “Since starting the movement of crude oil by rail in 2010, CN has safely delivered crude oil to destination with no accidents causing the release of product.” The company says 99.9973 per cent of hazardous materials moved by rail make it to destination accident-free. (Pipeliner Enbridge, by comparison, boasts a slightly better 99.9996 per cent success rate.)
The rail industry says there are other advantages, too. When a train derails, cleanup can start immediately; in recent years, pipeline companies have taken many hours to identify that a spill is taking place. And unlike pipelines, heavy oil sands crude, called bitumen, is moved by train without dilution. Bitumen looks a bit like a hockey puck at room temperature, and as it loses heat in a rail car, it hardens. Derail a cooled car, and “it’s like molasses in January coming out. So you’re not going to have a huge problem,” said Michael Bourque, president of the Railway Association of Canada.
Little of the oil moving by rail today, however, is heavy oil or bitumen. And rail has other strikes against it. Rail companies have also fought measures to improve the safety of cars with known problems. At CN’s Illinois derailment, for example, 13 cars filled with ethanol leaked; some caught fire. One person died. Seven others were injured. In an accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board pointed to “the inadequate design of the DOT-111 tank cars, which made the cars subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.”
Those DOT-111 tankers are some 69 per cent of the U.S. fleet. They are used in Canada as well, and have what the NTSB called a “high incidence of tank failure.” A new design of tanker car has been used since 2011. But the rail industry has resisted retro-fitting the tens of thousands of existing cars.
Some transportation safety experts have also issued sharp warnings about railways carrying increased volumes of oil.
“If you look at our two major railroads in Canada, they’re very unsafe,” said Emile Therrien, a past president of the Canada Safety Council who formerly sat on its railways safety committee. He accused government of conducting insufficient safety audits, and said rail companies need to spend “billions and billions” to upgrade their track infrastructure.
The rail industry says it’s already doing that: CN spent more than $1-billion last year “on track infrastructure across its North American network,” the company said. CP said its “track system is built to accommodate today’s trains and we have a comprehensive track inspection program and ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure in place that meets or exceeds federal and industry requirements.”
The Railway Association of Canada added: “Canadian rail is by far the safest means of ground transportation in Canada. In 2010, there were 12.89 accidents per million train miles in Canada – a decrease of 80 per cent since 2000.”
But fears remain. Last summer, the oil and gas companies that back Western Canadian Spill Services, an emergency response co-operative, asked for detailed information on the emergency preparedness of railways. They were worried. “The board of directors of WCSS are certainly concerned about the amount of product that’s being shipped by rail,” said Al McFadyen, the group’s chief executive.
Mr. Therrien is more blunt: “I just have no faith in the railroads carrying all this oil.”