Freight Train Carrying Crude Oil Explodes After Colliding With Another

By Kim Smiley

On Monday, December 30, 2013, a 106-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in North Dakota and violently exploded after colliding with another derailed train that was on the tracks.  No injuries were reported, but the accident did cause an impressive plume of hazardous smoke and major damage to two freight trains.

The investigation into the accident is ongoing and it’s still unknown what caused the first train to derail. Investigators have stated that it appears that there was nothing wrong with the railroad track or with the signals.  It is known that a westbound freight train carrying grain derailed about 2:20 pm.  A portion of this train jumped onto the track in front of the eastbound train.  There wasn’t enough time for the mile long train loaded with crude oil to stop and it smashed into the grain train, causing the eastbound oil train to derail.  (To see a Cause Map of this accident, click on “Download PDF” above.)

Train cars carrying crude oil were damaged and oil leaked out during the accident.  The train accident created near ideal conditions for an explosion: sparks and a large quantity of flammable fluid.   The fire burned for more than 24 hours, resulting in a voluntary evacuation of nearby Casselton, North Dakota due to concerns over air quality.  The track was closed for several days while the initial investigation was performed and the track was cleaned up.

The accident has raised several important issues.  The safety of the train cars used to transport oil has been questioned.  Starting in 2009, tank train cars have been built to tougher safety standards, but most tank cars in use are older designs that haven’t been retrofitted to meet the more stringent standards.  This accident, and others that have involved the older design tank cars in recent year, have experts asking hard questions about their safety and whether they should still be in use.

The age of the train cars is particularly concerning since the amount of oil being transported by rail has significantly expanded in result years.  Around 9,500 carloads of oil were reportedly transported in 2008 and nearly 300,000 carloads were moved during the first three quarters of 2013.  The oil industry in North Dakota has rapidly expanded in recent years as new technology makes oil extraction in the area profitable.   North Dakota is now second only to Texas in oil production since the development of the Bakken shale formation.  Pretty much the only way to transport the crude oil extracted in North Dakota is via rail.  There isn’t a pipeline infrastructure or other alternative available.

And most of the time, transporting oil via freight train is a safe evolution.  The Association of American Railroads has reported that 99.99 percent of all hazardous materials shipped by rail reach the destination safely.  But it’s that 0.01 percent that can get you in trouble.  As a nation, we have to decide if where we are at is good enough or if it’s worth the money to require all tank cars used to transport oil to be retrofitted to meet the newest safety standards, a proposition that isn’t cheap.