From our sponsor

5 reasons crude oil by rail is built for safety

This feature was produced by Association of American Railroads, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

America's energy boom has been a stunner: Seemingly overnight, the United States has become a global powerhouse of petroleum production. Few people saw this coming, and the swift change has meant more than just $2 gas and a little extra spending money for consumers. The sudden surge has challenged the oil and transportation industries to figure out how to get this liquid gold — so much more of it — from here to there.

That's where freight rail comes in. The energy sector has largely turned to railroads to keep the nation's energy engine revving, and the industry has met this challenge. Indeed, even with this sudden increase in volume, freight rail is safer than ever. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 2014 was the safest year on record for freight rail. Here's how they're doing it:




Strengthened rail cars are not a panacea, but they are central to any solution. Despite a common misperception, freight railroads do not own the tank cars that they use to transport crude oil each day. More commonly, third party leasing companies own these cars. Even so, freight railroads are working with industry stakeholders to set higher standards for cars that carry crude oil. In 2011, the industry adopted new design standards for tank cars used to transport crude oil and petitioned the federal government to adopt these higher standards. Today, freight railroads believe that even cars meeting this current industry standard should be strengthened further. Railroads are currently advocating for additional requirements that would make these cars more puncture-resistant and better able to withstand a fire. The industry believes that any car that doesn’t meet these higher standards should be retrofitted or taken out of crude oil service.



Railroads have done an exhaustive review of the operating procedures for crude oil and have taken steps well beyond what federal regulations require. In February 2014, freight railroads and the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced new, voluntary operating procedures for crude oil. The agreement includes a 40 mph speed restriction for crude oil trains, enhanced track inspection requirements for crude oil routes and routing of crude oil trains on the route with the lowest safety and security risk, to name just a few of the initiatives.



Railroads work closely with emergency responders, firefighters and safety officials in communities where crude oil is transported by rail. First, there’s the matter of transparency: Railroads make shipment information available to local officials and first responders along crude oil routes so they know what is moving through their communities. Knowledge really is power for all involved.Then, it’s about planning for any scenario. Railroads actively participate with emergency planning committees and first responders to develop emergency response plans in the event of an accident. The freight rail industry also invests in equipment — such as foam trailers — that is strategically located throughout the network to ensure that it can arrive quickly at the scene of an accident.

Even though 99.997 percent of all rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident, first responders need to be ready for that 0.003 percent. To that end, in addition to the tens of thousands of firefighters trained on hazmat response through individual railroad programs and industry partnerships, railroads have developed a $5 million crude by rail training program at the industry’s Transportation Technology Center’s Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colo. This specialized course provides first responders from across the country with hands-on experience dealing with extreme — and extremely rare — situations, such as a crude oil train derailment.



Railroads have installed additional wayside wheel bearing detectors — an early-alert system for potential problems with rail cars — every 40 miles along crude oil routes, per the agreement with DOT. The deployment of these devices is just another of the many ways the industry is working to prevent derailments.

Wayside detectors use infrared and acoustic monitoring technology to assess the health of rolling stock such as rail cars. Positioned along the tracks, these detectors alert railroads to early signs of stress and defects in rail car components allowing rail car owners to schedule maintenance in a safe and timely manner. Thanks to advanced inspection techniques and this network of wayside detectors, the broken wheel and rail accident rate has dropped 20 percent over the past decade.



Anyone whose car has been rocked by a stealthy pothole understands the value of well-maintained infrastructure. Freight railroads take infrastructure seriously and invest the time and resources to make this network the envy of the world. The industry spends its own funds to maintain and modernize the rail infrastructure and equipment needed to move crude oil — and other commodities — safely and efficiently across the continent. This year alone, railroads expect to spend up to $29 billion on the nation’s 140,000-mile rail network. From installation of a sophisticated safety system that overrides human error (positive train control) to the replacement of track and bridges, projects such as these have important impacts on railroads safety and contribute to the industry’s impressive hazmat safety record.


Yet the never-ending goal of the freight rail industry is to be the best. Not just good, but better every day. That’s why railroads continue investing, innovating and improving so that America will always tout the best — and safest — rail network the world has ever known. To learn more about crude oil transport by rail, click here.

Feature Photo Credit:

This feature was produced by the Association of American Railroads, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative.


This feature was produced by Association of American Railroads, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

More from Association of American Railroads


Why you can count on railroads

America's freight rail network is something to behold: a vast, high-tech system that's a monument to U.S. ingenuity and a bedrock of America's economy. Though you might from time to time see rail...


Railroads are on it: How safety drives an industry

It's no accident that last year was the safest year ever on U.S. railways. See how 21st-century technology and first-responder training are helping to keep America's most reliable and efficient...


Why today’s freight rail is safer than ever

Rail has been moving goods from here to there since the 1800s, but don't let its age fool you.  The railroad industry is nimble, technologically savvy and in many ways ahead of its time. Today, in...