wva oil trainBy Peter Galuszka

The small town of Pembroke in southwest Virginia is used to seeing endlessly long unit trains of coal cars rumbling past. But last week, it got an unexpected surprise – trains of similar length hauling crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields started going by.

According to Reuters, Pembroke is one of many Virginia towns that are being affected by CSX’s derailment and explosion of oil tank cars filled with Bakken oil a few miles east of Montgomery, W.Va.  on Feb. 16. The massive blast sent fireballs hundreds of feet in the air and forced the evacuation of nearby residents including a college. It also stopped all rail traffic on a major, east-west CSX line for days.

A similar derailment involving a CSX oil train happened last April in Lynchburg on the same rail mainline. Several tank cars caught fire down causing a fire and a spill into the James River.

So, after the West Virginia incident, CSX got in touch with rival Norfolk Southern to see if it could reroute oil trains on some of its lines.

This brings up another issue – who should be informed when new railroad trains hauling potentially explosive or otherwise hazardous cargoes suddenly show up in your backyard? Do they have to tell you so you can get the flashlight, thermos and sleeping bag ready for your immediate evacuation if necessary?

CSX says it has informed appropriate public safety officials of such route changes, but is loath to let the general public in where it is sending unusual trains. Security and proprietary information, you understand.

CSX needs to keep its tank cars rolling to big oil terminal in Yorktown near the Chesapeake Bay. That site had been an Amoco refinery for years but the refinery shut down and was switched to an oil water terminal now owned by Houston-based Plains All-American.

The facility receives Bakken shale oil cars and loads the crude on barges that are then pushed or towed to East Coast refineries, notably in the Philadelphia area. Presumably, if petroleum exports from the U.S. start again, the Yorktown site would be excellent embarkation point.

So, instead of having tank cars with Bakken crude trundling from Charleston, W.Va. through the New River Gorge and on to Lynchburg, they will go on more southerly NS lines through places like Pembroke and Roanoke. Then they will be switched at Petersburg to CSX lines and go north to Richmond and east to Yorktown.

It looks like Richmond could potentially get it either way. On the usual route, oil trains pass by downtown on an elevated bridge which would be quite a mess if a derailment happened there. According to the Forest Ethics Website, all of downtown Richmond to about one half of a mile on either side would have to be evacuated if a major derailment with fires and explosions came.

With the temporary rerouting, Richmond would still be in serious jeopardy in case of a derailment. If I’m reading the map correctly, trains would still pass through the city.

So, you have to ask yourself – why does CSX get away with keeping all this secret? They claim they let “appropriate” public safety officials know, but the Richmond Times Dispatch last year quoted a Richmond fire officer in charge of hazardous situations as saying he had a hard time learning from CSX what a “worse case” scenario would be in the event of a Richmond derailment.

Part of the problem is PR. Bakken shale oil comes from controversial hydraulic fracturing. The uptick in production has turned America’s energy picture on its head. It has also made for big jumps in oil rail traffic. Another problem is that Bakken oil tends to be more explosive than other types.

According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped by 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 shipments last year. Accidents are way up. In 2013, tank cars carrying Bakken crude somehow got loose in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. They rolled through the small town, derailed and exploded. The blast killed 47 and wiped out half of downtown.

According to a recent probe by the Associated Press, a federal study predicts that oil shipments will rise to 900,000 shipments this year. The study predicts that trains hauling petroleum will derail 10 times a year over the next two decades. They could possibly cause $4 billion in damages and kill hundreds of people, the AP reports.

What to do? Build pipelines, I guess, but that’s been highly controversial as well as the experience with Dominion Transportation’s efforts with a $5 billion gas pipeline through the state and the controversy over the Keystone XL show.

Better, newer, safer tank cars? Maybe, but the West Virginia and Lynchburg derailments both involved new “1232” models. The same type also caught fire recently in Timmins, Ontario.

Federal rules require railroads to tell local officials where they are carrying Bakken crude, which is more explosive than other types. Railroads like CSX claim the information is proprietary, according to Reuters. That’s rather pointless. If the goal is to keep “proprietary” information from competitors, Norfolk Southern, CSX’s biggest competitor, already knows about it because it has agreed to let CSX use its rail lines.

And don’t ask some public officials. West Virginia officials have gone along with keeping much of the information secret. Mountain State officials responded to an Freedom of Information Act request by redacting much of the data they finally gave out.

Not only do the railroads need to clean up their act, they should be forced to be more forthcoming about where the next evacuation might be.

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31 responses to “Closely Watched Trains?”

  1. there’s a lot this geezer does not understand about the crude oil from Bakken coming east to Yorktown – whose refinery closed down operations a couple of years ago.

    why in the world are we send crude oil on trains (instead of pipelines) to a place that has no refinery?

    something sounds pretty fishy but perhaps this is another example of how
    little most of us really know about how energy “works” in this country, eh?

    One would think – that you move the oil – only as far as it takes to get it into a pipeline (or a barge) to a refinery.

    anyone know?

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You have a point and I forgot to mention what was going on in Yorktown. It was a refinery site but has been converted to a terminal and the oil goes to East COast refineries by barge. I have updated this.

  3. Thanks Peter.

    other questions – perhaps the answer not readily discernable.

    One would think that moving crude oil to a distant refinery was more expensive than moving it to a near refinery – than moving the much lower volume of refined product from near refinery to remote markets.

    so there are about 20 gallons of gas in a 40 gal barrel so it would seem that the transportation costs are twice what they would be for the finished product – realizing that gasoline is more volatile than oil..

    but beyond that – we have a huge network of pipelines – here’s a map:


    AND – gasoline usage is DOWN – it’s one of the reasons why we import less oil.

    why are we transporting raw crude in railcars instead of gasoline in pipelines?

    same question for Keystone – there are many, many refineries in Edmonton Canada – and all those jobs would go to Canadians as well as the gasoline which ought to make it cheaper than the current $5 a gallon to Canadians. Why does this oil have to go long distance to a remote refinery when they have refineries close to the tar sands?

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One more thing. Most of the U.S. oil pipelines have gone southwest to northeast– from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana oil and gas regions northward to large industrial centers. Part of this was because of the pre-pipeline days when U.S. tankers took crude from the gulf to the northeast and got sunk by German U-boats.
    North Dakota is a huge and sudden bonanza but there aren’t any pipelines that run from ND to the eastern U.S.or parts of Canada.
    That is why there is such as huge increase in rail shipments.
    My other guess is that the oil firms and railroads want to set things up for exports so they can make even more money.
    Same is true with gas. There’s huge controversy over new pipelines that run from the Marcellus fields of WVA and PA southeast to population centers in the MidAtlantic and SOutheast. These are new pipelines. The old ones run southwest to northeast and have been around for years. People are not used to big pipeline building because it hasn’t happened in decades.
    The unifying factor? Fracking.

    1. all true Peter – but TYPICALLY in the past .. I thought that refineries in Texas would produce gasoline that was then pipelined to Va and the Northeast.


  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I thought they carried both

    1. both – oil and gasoline?

      if oil takes twice the volume – why would you transport oil rather than gasoline?

    2. One environmentalist was saying gasoline is not allowed to go by train. But I cannot verify that.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Will have to check

    1. the refineries on the East coast – in the past – I think – used to refine imported oil from the Middle East.

      but unless Bakken oil is much cheaper than Mid East oil – one would think huge tankers could transport crude oil cheaper than thousands of rail cars.

      what cannot be denied is that someone thinks transporting Bakken oil in rail cars is cheaper than other available alternatives both source and transport.

      but also – what cannot be denied – is that most people and most newspapers don’t seem to know why.

      what might make sense – is if gasoline use is down – that some refineries would close.

      what doesn’t make sense is moving crude oil by train – to places that are no longer refineries and re-transporting to the refineries still open when crude oil is still available via tanker from other oil producing countries.

      One might say that business knows what it is doing and the govt stay out of it. I’m not convinced that it’s actually something govt is doing that is causing this.

      Some incentive, some tax break, some policy… is causing the least efficient and least safe of transport methods to be used.

      you’d think Canada would benefit from their own refinery jobs and their own increased supply of gasoline but something is convincing a private company to seek a much longer transport of crude oil and here’s another

      why doesn’t Trans Canada build more support by saying that they’ll also transport Bakken oil to Texas to be refined – so it does not need to go by rail car to the east coast?

      I think there is a lot that most of us don’t know nor really understand.

  7. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    The answer is obviously more pipelines as they are not prone to explosions.



    The FRA has 500 federal inspectors and about 180 state inspectors for roughly 140K miles of Class I rail, which moves over 1 trillion ton-miles of freight. The US DOT predicts that oil/fuel train derailments could happen at a rate of as many as 10 per year over the next 20 years, which depending on the location of the accidents could result in $4 billion worth of damages and the loss of hundreds of lives.

    I know the conventional approach this blog takes is to just let industry do what it does with minimum proactive regulation and just fine companies when their practices result in damages, but when it comes to hazardous materials a much more aggressive approach is warranted. More inspectors are needed, more transparency is needed from these shipping companies to local governments that have these materials passing through and stricter penalties than monetary fines need to be in place.

    Actuarial wisdom aside, not everything can have a solid dollar amount attached to it, especially materials and property than be rendered unusable for years once it becomes tainted by toxic materials.

    1. pipelines are not a panacea to transporting fuels .. they do “break” on a fairly regular basis – one on the Yellowstone River a week or two back:’

      for 2014 alone – more than 20 –


      and many of them seem to be older pipe that is prone to stress cracks.. and needs to be replaced or remediated – and as LOFL points out – companies are not going to do this unless pushed by regulators – because in some cases – the cost to fix might exceed the financial ability of the company – not all of them are Fortune 500 companies.

      tighter regulation WILL cost us more money – not unlike the issue with cleaning up coal plants or cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        Here’s the cool thing about money – at least as far as I’ve noticed – over time more of it is created! Here’s the critical thing about property – it’s incredibly finite and can be destroyed in ways that are not reclaimable for a very long time.

        I’d rather use the money now than lose the property later.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This data is old, but it seems that Bakken crude can be $10/bbl cheaper (including shipping) than Brent type crude that east coast refineries get from West Africa:


    There is no pipeline from North Dakota to the east nor will there be any time soon.

    Business Week says that a few years ago the higher price of imported African crude to East COast refiners is why Masachusetts drivers paid maybe 25 cents a gallon more than Midwestern ones. Reason being that there’s so much of the Bakken stuff.

    1. thanks Peter – and here’s a Forbes article with lots of good info:

      Pick Your Poison For Crude — Pipeline, Rail, Truck Or Boat


      turns out – there is a shortage of pipeline capacity and getting new pipelines requires a long and expensive approval process so even though rail costs 2-3 times as much as pipelines and is far more prone to accidents – it’s the quickest and easiest way to move the oil.

      here’s an excerpt:

      “Like always, it will probably come down to money. And it won’t be about jobs (Pipeline Jobs), regardless of which end of the spectrum you believe, because there just isn’t enough jobs to matter compared to the value of the oil itself and the refinery capacity. It’s simply cheaper and quicker to transport by pipeline than by rail or by truck. The difference in cost is about $50 billion a year for shipping via the Keystone versus rail, totally eclipsing any economic effect of jobs in either direction.

      A rail tank car carries about 30,000 gallons (÷ 42 gallons/barrel = about 700 barrels). A train of 100 cars carries about 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) and takes over 3 days to travel from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, about a million gallons per day. The Keystone will carry about 35 million gallons per day (830,000 barrels). This puts pressure on rail transport to get bigger and bigger, and include more cars per train, the very reason that crude oil train wrecks have dramatically increased lately.”

  9. Peter, you say “The motivation for shipping Bakken shale oil, however, is more profit than national security.” I think it completely misses the significance of these shipments WHY they occur. The railroads are part of our common-carrier infrastructure and ALL information about ALL hazardous shipments should be treated as though it might fall in the hands of terrorists; it’s not “extra wrong” to ship hazardous materials simply to make a profit while doing so, as opposed to supporting a war effort (and making a profit while doing so).

    That said, I think your exchange with LarryG clarifies that these shipments are taking place by rail because there’s a shortage of alternatives. We know what the alternative would be if you could forbid them on safety grounds: a decline in crude input to east-coast refineries, which would drive up gasoline and heating oil prices in the east right during the worst of a hard winter here and north. And you’d prefer THAT to occur?

    LarryG, the article you quote from, about pressure on rail transport to get bigger, may be true in the short run, but the best way to keep the most oil off the rails is to build the pipelines we need to transport it underground. Except at the margins, the railroads can’t compete with a well designed pipeline network. Nor do we want them to.

    1. Acbar – the passage about the capacity of the Keystone vs rail:

      ” A train of 100 cars carries about 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) and takes over 3 days to travel from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, about a million gallons per day. The Keystone will carry about 35 million gallons per day”

      tells me that the keystone will move more oil in one day that rail can move in 30 days… a million a day for rail and 35 million per day for pipe.

      the other question is why are east coast refineries getting oil from bakken rather than by tanker from the Middle East or Venezuela or Mexico?

      there’s still some puzzle here to solve … and I’m persuaded that we’re missing something because we hear no great hue and cry for a pipeline from SD to the east coast – why not?

      I’m pretty sure the oil and oil transport industry knows what is going on. I’m also convinced that not one person in 10,000 to includes the media knows what is going on.

      If the American people KNEW the essential issue was pipe line or rail from west to east – they’d not have any trouble deciding.

      but why is Bakken oil to Philadelphia and points north – going through Southern Virginia?

      obviously the shortest route is north… so even though we’ve learned more – we’re still not as knowledgeable as we need to be to really understand.

      1. “Why is Bakken oil to Philadelphia and points north – going through Southern Virginia?” That’s a very appropriate question. I suspect you have to work backwards from the destination, which is likely one of those refineries in New Jersey or elsewhere along the east coast. You could get oil to a NJ refinery by pipeline from southwest (TX/OK) to northeast. But my understanding is, while some of those pipelines are convertible from natural gas to refined oil or gasoline or even crude oil, they are used 100% for gas in winter because there’s such demand for natural gas to heat homes in winter. So you have to get the shale oil to the refinery by some other means, or get oil from another source entirely. Now you’re talking either (1) rail tank cars, or (2) barges (because most east coast refineries are located on the water precisely to allow deliveries by barge). Barges are the cheaper option, plus rail traffic is harder to schedule in the more congested northeast, so it makes economic sense to go by rail the shortest distance from the oil fields to the nearest large east coast barge pier even if that is not directly towards the refinery. That’s Hampton Roads. Might even be Baltimore but I suspect there’s a problem getting those barges through the C&D canal to the Delaware R. so they have to go around Cape Charles and up the coast anyway, so Hampton Roads is the shortest path.

        Now, if a new pipeline were built from the Bakken fields to the nearest existing interstate pipeline it would go southeast and T into those southwest-northeast pipes. But they are already fully committed to moving gas. So along comes Dominion and wants to build a pipeline southeast to the interstate pipes and keep going across them and all the way southeast to Hampton Roads. Makes sense to me. There are lots of needs, and uses, for that route to the coast, especially if the pipes into the Northeast remain filled to capacity most of the year. As you have pointed out, that new Dominion pipeline must be operated as a common carrier serving multiple customers in order to justify having the power to condemn property; but that won’t be a problem — at all.

      2. By the way, the same discussion applies to the Keystone XL route, which Ts nicely into those same southwest-northeast pipelines, but is proposed to keep going all the way to the coast to facilitate barge hauling to refineries and other customers in the Gulf of Mexico. And, yes, to gas liquification plants, as liquified n.g. is much the most efficient way to transport n.g. by barge or ship if there’s no pipeline available. And yes, the liquified n.g. could be shipped to other countries if that were to become economically desirable, though that’s probably a secondary consideration in today’s n.g. market.

        What’s so wrong with that?

  10. Lots of issues here. Peter has mentioned some. In bad weather the ground near the tracks washes out or shifts. Perhaps our Virginia topography and climate is more challenging in this regard. My understanding that the “newer” tank cars in use are still not adequate even according to industry sources. As far why we are sending trains, versus ship tankers, my understanding is federal laws make it expensive for East Coast refineries to bring in shipped oil; eg; it’s cheaper to export crude from US to Europe than to transfer crude by ship within the US itself due to hefty gov’t fees.

    1. re: hefty fees…

      maybe.. not convinced until I see something more than conjecture though
      I do suspect the govt and it’s rules to be involved.

      what keeps the existing tankers from other countries from continuing to supply east coast refineries..???

      more to this story……

      1. Delta (who owns a Philly refinery) was complaining that the proposed crude oil export regulations were putting Delta at a disadvantage because it costs Delta more to bring the same tankers into port of Philly, due to regulatory realted fees. Historically the Philly refineries have been supplied by ship tankers, which was one reason the Army Corp spent millions dredging the Delaware River. Of course, that rationale for the dredging project was a red herring, many felt it was just a pork barrel project. Interesting to wonder if the new low crude prices will reduce the need to move crude on trains to Philly.

      2. I remember now, regarding the gov’t disencentive for using tanker ships, it’s the Jones Act. The Jone Act requires that, when shipping from US port to another US post, that American-built and American-staffed ships must be used. The American ships are quite a bit more costly to use for shipping crude oil etc.

        1. larryg Avatar

          if that’s what is causing the oil to go on trains – it’s pretty dumb.

          but it’s still a puzzle why Bakken oil via train via southern Va is better that oil via tanker from the mideast…. you’d think all things equal (and they never are) that any advantage in price would be lost shipping by rail which my understanding is – by far the most expensive way to move oil.

  11. one of the issues – is how long the Bakken Oil will last and whether or not it’s cost effective to build a pipeline that won’t be needed in 20 years.

    that’s the reality of the Bakken formation from what I read.. lots of oil right now – but will run out faster than Prudhoe Bay did.

    that would explain why moving by train is preferred to building a pipeline that goes fallow before it’s capital costs are recovered.

    at some point – maybe sooner than latter – we’re out of oil again – and at the mercy of foreign countries..

    would that surprise anyone that we are that shortsighted in our focus on the future?

    not me. the whole country have moved to short term gains and hang the future …

    anyone else with some real credible info on the subject?

    here’s some sobering perspective:

    “Certainly 3.65 billion barrels of recoverable oil is nothing to sneeze at, but a little perspective is in order. The U.S. currently imports an average of about 10 million barrels of oil per day (for a total of about 3.65 billion barrels of oil per year), so even if all the estimated undiscovered oil in the Bakken formation were extracted today, it would only be enough to wean the U.S. off of crude oil imports for one year. That’s still a good thing, but it’s not nearly “enough crude to fully fuel the American economy for 41 years straight” as claimed above.

    As for the second part of the article, a 2005 study co-authored by James T. Bartis for the RAND Corporation (a nonprofit research organization) noted that estimates had placed upper range of shale oil resources to be found within the Green River Formation range of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming at between 1.5 and 1.8 trillion barrels. However, the report also stated that not all of that oil was recoverable and offered a midpoint estimate of about 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil shale resources. Moreover, the report also noted that even under “high growth assumptions,” an oil shale production level of 1 million barrels per day (about 10% of the amount of oil the U.S. currently imports daily) is “probably more than 20 years in the future,” and depends upon scientists overcoming some substantial obstacles first:”


  12. Missing yet again is the “real” subject: Why do we need to transport so much oil?

    And the answer is that we drive for virtually every transportation need or desire; totalling about 2.9 trillion miles annually in America and using some 2/3 of all oil consumption in gas and diesel tanks while producing about a quarter of all American greenhouse gases. Adding insult to injury, some 70 percent of American car trips are in single occupancy vehicles.

    But no one ever talks about programs for consuming — read that
    “driving” — less although they are immensely successful when they are tried and, most importantly, provide political security for politicians seeking to address the depth of issues. In Australia, where TravelSmart programming is in every major metro area — except Sydney where officials are fearful of creating demand for more public transport infrastructure than the city can supply — that nation is seeing a 13-16 percent annual reduction in vehicle miles traveled, Furthermore, after a decade of TS programming, since 2010 politicians have been able to say that the federal government would provide ZERO dollars for building highways UNLESS the roadway could be a proven necessary for increasing commercial commerce and jobs — or truck traffic. (80 percent of America’s transportation spending is on road construction). Several communities, after being TravelSmarted, banned the construction of new roadways and spending on public transit, bike-ped is way up. Australia, by the way, has as high a per capita car ownership as America, a similar federal democracy and even more “wide open spaces.”

    In the only American community doing TravelSmart (though it’s called “Smart Trips” there), Bellingham and Whatcom County Washington is seeing a 15 percent reduction in VMT and finding greater public support for expanding transit — yes, the bus — even from people who say they will never use it.

    If America is ever going to deal with our issues, we have got to begin talking about the whole issue, not the band aids for it, and certainly “where” oil is consumed is THE issue in how/why Bakken heavy crude gets to any refinery anywhere. Most oil is eventually headed for a gasoline or diesel tank — even if one in Europe — and the best way to keep that oil in the ground and, therefore, not creating greenhouse emissions or potential spills, is to not “need” it.

    Will we ever talk about decreasing consumption? Or will media continue mentioning cars only in the context that “doing X is the equivalent of removing Y cars from the road?”

    1. Some of this is two steps forward and one step back:

      but you might like this:

      Congestion Pricing Foes Sit Down at the Table With Fair Toll Advocates

      The plan would charge everyone driving into Manhattan below 60th Street, while outer-borough crossings with few transit options nearby would see a toll cut. It also asks Manhattanites to pay up by removing the borough’s parking tax rebate and adding a surcharge to taxi trips. The plan would raise almost $1.5 billion annually, with a quarter of it going to road and bridge maintenance. The rest would go to transit in the form of both capital funds and operating assistance.


      and I think the HOT Lanes on I-495/I-95 – and likely I-66 will likely change he way people drive … in the Washington Area and that would included exurban commuters – who have jumped on the slugging/carpooling thing with vigor!

      but that’s, as Peter says, sort of a separate issue with the trains…supplying east coast refineries – when most were previously getting tanker oil from the Middle East (I think).

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I don’t think I’m “missing” the real story. I am simply writing an opinion about the new danger of oil train disasters.
    If you want to write an esoteric piece on why people drive so much, that’s your choice. If I tried to do that, I would bore everyone out of their minds.

  14. I love trains, but not when they derail. There is a chance that those trains would still end up going through Lynchburg, as well, as a NS line to tidewater goes through the city. The derailment in WVa involved newer, safer tank cars. I am surprised that there hasn’t been discussion about the safety of these transports through the denser downtown Roanoke area. These trains most likely don’t go north because of the proximity to dense population centers or because of the tunnel through downtown Baltimore. Seems like a great opportunity to improve on the new and improved tank cars.

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