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Oil Train Explosion Triggers Evacuation In North Dakota 199

Posted by Soulskill
from the just-put-it-on-amtrak dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "The LA Times reports that the small town of Casselton, North Dakota dodged a bullet after being partially evacuated when a train carrying crude oil collided with another train, setting off a large fire and explosions. Officials received a report at 2:12 p.m. of a train derailing about a mile west of Casselton, a city of 2,432 people about 20 miles west of Fargo. At some point, another train collided with the derailed train, belonging to the BNSF Railway, carrying more than 100 cars loaded with crude oil. The explosions and fire erupted after cars from a grain train struck some of the oil tank cars. 'A fire ensued, and quickly a number of the cars became engulfed,' said Sgt. Tara Morris of the Cass County Sheriff's Office, adding that firefighters had managed to detach 50 of the 104 cars but had to leave the rest. This was the fourth serious accident involving trains hauling crude in North America this year. In July, an unattended train with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale fields rolled downhill and set off a major explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. The accidents have put a spotlight on the growing reliance on rail to move surging oil production from new fields in Texas, North Dakota and Colorado. U.S. railroads are moving 25 times more crude than they did in 2008, often in trains with more than 100 tank cars that each carry 30,000 gallons. Though railroads have sharply improved their safety in recent years, moving oil on tank cars is still only about half as safe as in pipelines, according to Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane University Energy Institute. 'You can make the argument that the pipeline fights have forced the industry to revert to rail that is less safe,' says Smith. One problem is that the trains go through small towns with volunteer fire departments, not well schooled in handling a derailment and explosion. Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell says it is time to 'have a conversation' with federal lawmakers about the dangers of transporting oil by rail. 'There have been numerous derailments in this area,' says McConnell. 'It's almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we're going to have an accident, it's when.'"
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Oil Train Explosion Triggers Evacuation In North Dakota

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  • by rossdee (243626) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 @03:51AM (#45835429)

    It dominated the news broadcasts at the end of last year.

    They said most of the people in that town could return to their homes on th 6pm news on 31 december.

    I bet the cold weather was the cause. W've been having January temperatures for most of the last month in the region.
    Although at the moment it has warmed up to 245 Kelvin, and not much wind.
    (I live about 90 Km SE of Fargo

    • by Z00L00K (682162)

      I have seen railroads in both the US and in Europe, and even though we in Europe complains that the railroads here aren't up to the standard they run in Japan I would say that many of the railroads in the US are really lagging behind when it comes to capacity, reliability and safety measures.

      I don't think that blaming cold weather is a good point - if you have correct safety precautions you would compensate for that.

      • by NicBenjamin (2124018) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 @09:05AM (#45836257)

        What apparently happened is that a grain train derailed and hit the oil train. Apparently only one of the trains belonged to a major carrier which can afford the latest safety equipment. I suspect that a) the derailing grain train was the one that didn't belong to BNSF, or b) the oil train wasn't supposed to be on that track at the same time as another train was on the other track due to high risk of derailment.

        North American railroads are actually quite advanced at doing what they do, which is move ridiculous amounts of freight very long distances very cheaply. Diesel is cheap, electrification is expensive because it means you have to add power equipment of some kind to every mile of track, therefore they don't use electric motive power. Diesel dominance makes electrification even more expensive because your second-hand locomotive market is all diesel. Mechanics all have extensive training on Diesel engines, some of which transfers over to electric, but some doesn't. Any employee you poach from another road because he's got decades of experience you can;t get from a fresh-faced college kid has that experience with diesels. There are virtually no North American vendors selling electric motive power. The fact that government doesn't support railroads anymore means this won't change. It's not like the bond market would actually give a rail executive enough money to electrify all his track, re-train his mechanics, etc. just because he thinks it will pay off in 25 years.

        Speed of any kind is expensive. It leads to wear on mechanical parts, which need to be replaced more often. It requires higher grades of track. Accidents (mostly derailments) are worse because you have more momentum at greater speeds; which in turn means your insurance rates go up. And if you're a transportation company in a country that pays jet pilots $20k, still has a postal monopoly that delivers to every house in the country within a week, and also has multiple package companies that pride themselves on doing it tomorrow, there just isn't much demand for fast freight. So instead of investing money in figuring out how to get your locomotives to break 100 MPH, you invest money in reliability at 30 MPH. If your double tracks are only running 150% of the trains of your single tracks you don't invest money in marketing to get them up to capacity, you invest money in increasing your single tracks capacity so that you can tear up the double-track and stop maintaining it.

        • by mysidia (191772)

          Apparently only one of the trains belonged to a major carrier which can afford the latest safety equipment.

          There you go.... the government should ban operation of any train without the latest safety equipment.

      • I have seen railroads in both the US and in Europe ... many of the railroads in the US are really lagging behind when it comes to capacity, reliability and safety measures.

        It's true that passenger rail service is much better in Europe, but for freight it's the exact opposite. Many people, European and American, don't realize that because mostly they see passenger trains. For all the integration of passenger train service, there are still compatibility problems between different European countries in freight service. The fancy railways are almost entirely passenger service. How much freight does the TGV carry?

        The US moves a much larger percentage of its freight by rail than Eu

    • by miller701 (525024)

      I grew a block and a half from that line that goes through Casselton ND and have lived most of my life within a mile of it, It's one of the main lines from Chicago to Seattle and there's trains about every 20 minutes. There is a derailment around Casselton about every 15 years or so (usually there's no giant fireballs).

      I think this story gets attention from the right who want to criticize the environmentalists delaying the XL pipeline expansion. Other criticisms fall on Warren Buffet/Berkshire Hathaway who

    • I live about 90 Km SE of Fargo

      Why?

  • by buss_error (142273) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 @03:54AM (#45835441) Homepage Journal

    Ordinarily tracks next to a derailed train are closed, being considered unsafe until a track inspector or officer OKs it's use.

    • According to the article only one of the trains belonged to BNSF.

      I would not be surprised to find out that the other train belonged to one of the short lines that takes over routes that big lines can't afford to run profitably. They manage to pull it off by running with decades-old equipment, which means that the safety equipment is decades-old, and the engineer (who is being paid less then he'd make at the big line) is expected to be so good he makes up for that. That's pretty much what happened with that

  • As per CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/01/us/north-dakota-train-fire/ [cnn.com], the people have been given an all clear and returned home... this happened a long time ago.. why is it being posted now?
  • by rueger (210566) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 @04:32AM (#45835511) Homepage
    One problem is that the trains go through small towns with volunteer fire departments, not well schooled in handling a derailment and explosion.

    More importantly, the towns through which these trains travel aren't told what's being shipped through them. Even after Lac Megantic the Canadian government is doing everything possible to allow rail companies to not provide prior details of dangerous cargo being shipped by rail.
    • by swb (14022)

      The population of Casselton, ND is 2500.

      In a town that size, who, exactly, is going to be keeping track of what runs on the tracks through town? I would wager that the entire fire department is a volunteer operation.

      There's some chance that the chief is a full-time employee (Devil's Lake, where my wife is from, has a paid chief and a couple of salaried employees, but they're also a town of nearly 8,000 people), but I would bet they are all-volunteer and rely on nearby Fargo for anything beyond a car fire o

      • If I had to guess, I'd assume that the actual town of Casselton has two employees. A full-time cop, and a part-time cop for when the full-time guy is on vacation. So they probably don't even have a guy who could read all the reports from the rail companies about every train.

        What they probably actually want is for their volunteer fire Chief to be able to read the report when something goes wrong. Then he'll know what his guys are getting into, and he knows if he should call the Governor for reinforcements.

        I

    • The Fire Dept's ignorance is their own fault. I can't speak for BNSF, but I have gone through training with CSX and Norfolk Southern. Both of those companies spend a lot of their own money to educate local FD's. There are tons of free training opportunities out there that most small FD's avoid because of the "can't happen here" mentality.

      Yes, the Smallville-Rural Volunteer Fire Company might not be equipped to deal with dozens of derailed crude tank cars, but that doesn't mean that they can get off
    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      One problem is that the trains go through small towns with volunteer fire departments, not well schooled in handling a derailment and explosion.

      More importantly, the towns through which these trains travel aren't told what's being shipped through them. Even after Lac Megantic the Canadian government is doing everything possible to allow rail companies to not provide prior details of dangerous cargo being shipped by rail.

      Firstly, to be fair to the train companies - a lot of early towns were set up along rail

  • by loshwomp (468955) on Wednesday January 01, 2014 @07:38AM (#45835955)

    At some point, another train collided with the derailed train

    I'm sending in more trains! [youtube.com]

  • I hope they're not going to have to evacuate the *whole* of North Dakota- the congestion caused by three or four busloads of people would be awful.

    Besides which, the South Dakota village hall doesn't have enough space to hold them all.
  • Apparently quite when you run into it with a train, but for some reason I would have thought that crude oil was ultimately flammable with high enough ignition temperatures or in the presence of an accelerant capable of burning alongside it but generally difficult to ignite.

    I would think that it would be hard to get it to ignite, especially in the winter when the temperature of the crude would be pretty close to the ambient air temperature. The low temperature for three days prior to the accident in nearby

    • Depends on the quality of the crude oil. Crude's desirability, indeed its market value, depends on its API (specific) gravity.

      Crude such as North Sea Brent has a high API gravity & viscosity, is considered sweet (low sulphur) and is more flammable.

      Crude from the Alberta tar sands (bitumen) is low in API gravity, worth less commercially, is sour (more sulphur), and way less flammable.

  • Though railroads have sharply improved their safety in recent years, moving oil on tank cars is still only about half as safe as in pipelines, according to Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane University Energy Institute. 'You can make the argument that the pipeline fights have forced the industry to revert to rail that is less safe,' says Smith.

    Well, duh. Refusing to build pipelines hasn't caused oil production to be capped, the increased supply has simply found alternative paths to market that are

    • Exactly - the problem isn't that the firemen aren't prepared or that pipelines aren't available - it's that the train companies are so unbelievably lax in their safety requirements and testing that they cause catastrophes when their "usual and customary" business practices of crashing on a regular basis with non-volatiles gets used for volatile shipments. Besides, pipelines take a long time to actually build and have collateral damage which is not as immediately spectacular as a train explosion, so it's not

      • by mysidia (191772)

        when their "usual and customary" business practices of crashing on a regular basis with non-volatiles gets used for volatile shipments.

        Yes.... you do realize the railroads carry a lot of "non-volatile" hazardous industrial chemicals, many that are highly flammable or explosive -- and many that are likely to be released in a derailment -- and in sufficient quantities to cause immediate threat of death upon inhalation for large populations --- materials, such as Chlorine gas, Anhydrous Ammonia, Hyd

  • So let's see here. One could posit that the tracks or the rolling stock were intentionally damaged to cause the derailment because the environmentalists are hell bent on casting a dark shadow on fossil fuels. One could also posit that the derailment was created by people who are are trying to encourage the completion of the Keystone pipeline. One could also look to see if anyone shorted BNSF stock. One could also posit that sh*t happens no matter who is doing what even though there is plenty of regulati

    • by mysidia (191772)

      So let's see here. One could posit that the tracks or the rolling stock were intentionally damaged to cause the derailment because the environmentalists are hell bent on casting a dark shadow on fossil fuels.

      This is unlikely.... the tracks are fairly robust, and attempts to damage them would likely be detected and set off alarms and alert the railroad security patrols, resulting in the perpetrator being quickly apprehended, and tossed in jail with the felony charge of trespassing on railroad prope

  • The main problem is that the railways are now run as profit. Many companies have been bought out by a few large companies (similar to the banks), and when that happened, a LOT of experienced railroad employees were fired. They were replaced with inexperienced people who get paid a lot less, but also make dumb mistakes. The fact that this was an oil shipment means little. They are actually pretty lucky, because a lot of rail cars carry industrial amounts of poison gases. THAT would have caused a lot more pro
  • Fundamental error in one part of OP raises serious credibility issues in all of OP.

    A tanker did not just "roll downhill"!!!

    From the Bakken offices in ND to Lac-Megantic QC is 1,939 miles!

    Pretty big fucking hill.

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