Philadelphia Derailment Raises Questions about Crude Oil Trains

  • Officials investigate the scene of the Amtrak Train #188 derailment in Philadelphia, May 12, 2015. Photo: National Transportation Safety Board

May 22, 2015

Federal investigators continue to search for answers about why an Amtrak train derailed on May 12 in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200. Aerial photos show the derailed train came close to an adjacent row of black tank cars—the type that often carry crude oil or other hazardous materials.

After visiting the crash site, Gov. Tom Wolf told reporters the tank cars were “a cause of additional concern.” Conrail later disclosed that there wasn’t any crude or ethanol in those cars. But the number of oil train crashes, spills, and explosions in recent years has some people concerned about these kinds of trains sharing tracks with passenger trains.

This week, Kara Holsopple spoke with Allan Zarembski, a professor at the University of Delaware and a rail expert, who Gov. Tom Wolf has charged with assessing the safety of Pennsylvania’s rail lines.

Interview Highlights

On measures that can be taken to reduce risk of derailment and rupture of tank cars:

“There have been quite a few studies that are showing that the risk of rupture of a tank car goes down with reduction in speed. There have been some measures in the preprocessing of the crude, where some of the volatile gases are removed prior to placing the crude into the tank car. From the studies I’ve seen, there is a reduction in the volatility of the crude and a reduction in the potential for an explosive event.”

On the idea of separating rail lines for passenger trains and trains carrying hazardous materials:

“First of all, there’s not that much sharing of rails on the crude oil routes. The Amtrak event was on the Northeast Corridor, and I do not believe that oil trains take that particular route or those particular tracks at all. There are locations in the state where passenger and freight do share, but for the most part, the frequency of passenger train operations on freight routes in the state are relatively small—particularly on the crude oil routes. I believe the safety regulations are such that we are not exposing the population to any significantly increased risk.”

On the increased volume of crude oil trains in Pennsylvania:

“I don't think we’re dealing with a question of an unreasonable numbers of trains. The traffic has clearly increased, but it has increased for reasons that really have to do with external issues, like the energy independence of the United States. There is a demand for this increased oil. The question becomes: Can we safely handle this volume? And I believe we can.

On whether we could see a disaster like the 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec closer to home:

“If we go through the industry statistics, you’ll see the derailment rate is very low. The Lac-Mégantic derailment was an extremely unusual combination of events. The possibility of that happening in eastern Pennsylvania or in the Philadelphia area is pretty remote, primarily because we’re not dealing with mountainous terrain here. So, we’re not dealing with a situation where you’re going to have a runaway train going down a mountain for six or eight miles before it hits a town.

In addition to that, railroads, especially since Lac-Mégantic, are paying even more attention to the use of hand brakes to make sure that the trains are absolutely, positively secured and will not move when left unattended. That’s less of concern for eastern Pennsylvania. In western Pennsylvania, of course, where we do have mountainous territory, this is an area we have to pay attention to.”