Crude Oil By Rail Information and Hazards

By Jeff Simpson

What do places such as Aliceville, Alabama; Vandergrift, Pennsylvania; Weld County, Colorado; Bethlehem, New York; Casselton, North Dakota; Plaster Rock, New Brunswick; Lac-Megantic, Quebec; and Lynchburg, Virginia, have in common? All represent towns, hamlets, or cities that have experienced a railroad train derailment within the last year or so involving volatile North American crude oil. Couple this with ethanol unit train derailments and fires in Arcadia, Ohio; New Brighton, Pennsylvania; and Cherry Valley, Illinois, and the fire and emergency medical services (EMS) along with emergency managers and planners can become quickly overwhelmed. The following information will provide better insight on what first responders potentially could be dealing with.


North American Crude Oil 101

The global demand for energy and worries over the potential supply disruptions in the Middle East, coupled with the spike in gas prices over the past several years, has stimulated drilling domestically to address our energy needs. Technology innovations have driven the growth of unconventional horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing from shale formations within sections of the United States and Canada. These successes have reshaped the North American energy industry relatively overnight. The United States is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil production currently.

Light oil production continues to grow in the Bakken, Permian, Niobrara, Eagle Ford, and other formations across the continent. In the United States, growth is projected to increase from 6.7 million barrels per day in 2012 to 11.6 million barrels per day in 2022. Canada is projected to produce 5.6 million barrels per day by 2025, up from 3.6 million barrels per day in 2011. This high-quality Bakken crude oil, with an output of 950,000 barrels per day (Figures 1, 2), mostly originates from North Dakota and Montana and weighs between 6.2 to 7.0 pounds per gallon. Classification of crude oil is conducted by the petroleum industry and is generally represented by the geographic production location.

Common terms are represented as well such as “sweet crude” (low sulfur content) or “sour crude” (high sulfur content). Sweet crude is preferred; the refining process yields high-grade gasoline and diesel fuel. Light or heavy crude refers to specific gravity, density (API rating), and viscosity of the product. The crude oil being transported by rail is less viscous than lower grade oil, making the refining process easier. In turn, the flashpoint and lowest possible temperature at which this oil can be ignited is reduced, making it more flammable and combustible. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) hazard rating is Class 3. All crude oil has a “pour point” value, which represents the temperature at which the oil will flow with Bakken oil in the -22°F to -4°F range. Also of note is that Canadian crude oil from the Alberta region contains greater than one percent sulfur, compared to less than 0.5 percent for U.S. crude. The creation of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) as an odorless gas byproduct during transport from Canadian oil operations is also being raised as a toxicity concern.



Railroad Transportation Economics

Today’s railroads incentivize shippers through their transportation rates to move the largest amount of a commodity in a single trainload. Railroads are most profitable when they can pick up a single trainload or unit train from a single origin and move it to a single destination in the most direct or timely manner. Limitations exist related to shipment size, train length, railcar dimensions, commodity weight, and railcar axle load ratings. It is not uncommon that unit trains of crude oil consist of 120 railcar loads, carrying the potential of 85,000 barrels (3.6 million gallons) of volume oil during point-to-point shipment. Approximately 75 percent of Bakken oil production travels by railcar, and upward of 400,000 barrels of oil a day heads to the East Coast, making it a highly lucrative business for the railroads. Another 300,000 barrels traverse the rails en route to the Gulf Coast, California, and Washington State.

Currently, the railroads are restricted because of the availability of crude oil tank cars, with orders for new construction of rail tank cars being backlogged by 80 percent. Federal law mandates that all production of crude oil in the United States be refined within the boundaries of the country. No oil is allowed to be transloaded and shipped off shore for delivery elsewhere. With limited refining locations in the United States, the potential to bottleneck crude oil unit trains (photo 1) in congested urban areas is extremely high. Railroads have opted to reroute a percentage of their trains to port locations such as Albany, New York, or Norfolk, Virginia, for commodity transfer onto tankers and barges for delivery to refineries by water routes. This process reduces the congestion, makes rail tank cars available for return, and refill faster and maintains a timely and steady flow of material to processing locations.

(1) Crude oil unit train. (Photo by Paul F. Titterton, GATX Corporation.)


Crude Oil Tank Car Specifications

Railroads are using DOT 111AW General Service tank cars, also known as CTC-111A, in Canada to transport the bulk of the crude oil throughout their network. Since the majority of these cars are owned by the shippers or railcar leasing companies, the mandated inspection and service regulations are the responsibility of the owner and not the railroads themselves. The railroads do periodic car inspections on a limited basis but this does not guarantee 100 percent compliance of good operating condition. Tank cars manufactured before 1996 have a maximum capacity of 25,000 gallons and are made from lower grade steel. Tank car capacities and steel strength have increased since then, with most of the crude oil, ethanol, and gasoline being transported in DOT 111AW cars carrying 31,800 gallons of product (photo 2). Since the demand for tank cars is greater than the supply, it is not uncommon to find lower capacity and older tank cars being used to move these commodities as well.

(2) DOT 111AW 31,800-gallon rail tank car. (Photo by Jad Mouawad, New York Times.)


In October 2011, the American Association of Railroads (AAR) recommended enhancements for all new tank car construction designed for crude oil and ethanol transport service, known as CPC-1232. These design improvements included advances in protection of top and bottom tank valves, ½- to 5/8-inch shell thicknesses, pressure relief devices, and half-height head shield protection (photo 3). In the May 2014 derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, it was confirmed that 14 of the 17 rail tank cars that derailed were made to the CPC-1232 standard including the breached car that leaked tens of thousands of gallons of oil into the James River.


Emergency Planning  

This born-yesterday industry has left many jurisdictions and agencies unprepared in planning for and mitigating a large scale public safety and hazardous emergency. The Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Guide (ERG) classifies this commodity as 1267 Petroleum with standard precautions described. Most departments and hazmat teams train on a single isolated release of product and not one involving multiple containers carrying thousands of gallons of volatile merchandise.

Develop emergency response plans (ERPs) based on these new complexities including worst-case scenarios. Localities need to quickly understand which routes and at what commodity flow rates the railroad is using to transport large volumes of crude oil, ethanol and gasoline. Departments and jurisdictions must refocus their efforts to be adequately trained to respond to flammable liquid incidents.

Development of core capabilities related to the five established levels of hazmat training can be found by consulting the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA’s) Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents (NFPA 472) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Standard for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (29 CFR 1910.120). Because of the size and complexity of a rail tank car related incident, the development of multiagency and regional response plans including training exercises is key to protecting the public and mitigating the hazard. It is recommended that localities identify and establish written impact zones along railroad track right-of-ways that exceed the standard ERG one-half mile evacuation guideline.


Response Objectives

Once life safety considerations have been assessed, it is critical to identify appropriate response objectives to successfully manage these large-scale incidents. Large amounts of resources including personnel and specialized equipment will be required over multiple operational periods to mitigate emergency conditions. Multiagency response including railroad personnel and their contractors will immediately be notified and en route to your event. Establishing a flexible unified command structure will assist in coordinating efforts. Initial responders should consider the following response objectives once preliminary assessments are complete:

  • Product Identification. Observe and secure DOT placard information or product stencil details from the impacted railcars. Locate the train crew and obtain the waybill, consist, and tonnage graph paperwork that identifies the cargo material involved.
  • Establish safety and security perimeter. Institute ERG or ERP population evacuation procedures and isolation of the incident site and surrounding areas.
  • Implement a hazard analysis. Assess scope of immediate conditions and project future impact.
  • Detection and monitoring. Establish a team to perform evaluation of potential movement of toxic vapors or flammable contents. Weather conditions and environmental impact review.
  • Vapor suppression and dispersion. Coordinate resources to handle mitigation of plume and smoke release.
  • Exposure protection and container cooling. Deploy actions to prevent fire spread and potential boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion conditions. Consider ground monitors and minimum fire flow recommendations based on water availability.
  • Extinguishment and mitigation. Light crude will permeate and move like water because of its low viscosity. Implement material run-off containment procedures when safe to do so. Water will be ineffective on petroleum fires, and large amounts of foam may not be available for complete fire extinguishment. Consult with hazardous materials and railroad experts regarding free burn-off of product based on location, total amount of product exposed, and so on.

Railroad specialists including contractors will also assess and follow a series of response objectives in coordination with emergency response actions. These include damage reconnoitering, leak control, product transfer off loading, remediation and recovery.


JEFF SIMPSON is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief of training and safety with Hanover (VA) Fire-EMS. He has progressive degrees in engineering and management and is a certified Virginia state fire instructor and officer. He has been teaching leadership, engineering, and strategy courses for the past 21 years. Simpson instructs at the Hanover County Fire Academy and assisted as an FDIC Firefighter Safety & Survival H.O.T. instructor. He is the lead FDIC H.O.T. instructor for the Training for Railroad Emergencies—Advanced class. He has contributed several articles to Fire Engineering and is a 2006 Governor’s Award Finalist for Excellence in the Virginia Fire Service.

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