Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains (2023)

This is the third article in a series looking at why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010–2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severeconsequences. Part one addressed train length as a factorand part two addressed “sloshing.”

On January 25, 2011, a notice appeared in the Federal Register announcing a change in the rules on allowable weight for a rail tank car transporting hazardous materials. It declaredthe Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) approval to increase this weight limit, bumping it up to286,000 pounds gross rail load (GRL) from the previous limit of263,000pounds.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but this rule change was well-timed for the Bakken oil-by-rail boom that was taking off at that point. Regardless, it had immediate impacts on the ability of the industry to move oil in long unit trains with cars that were heavier than previouslyallowed.

Prior to 2011, the largest volume of hazardous materials being moved by rail was ethanol and most of that was in tank cars with a gross rail load of 263,000 pounds, meaning the weight of the tank car plus the weight of the contents could not exceed this amount. However, this rule change allowed for crude oil to move tank cars with heavier loads, and the industry took advantage ofthat.

In July 2016 at a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable meeting on “What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety,”Richard Kloster of rail consulting firm Alltranstek, explained thechange:

So we started out with the 30,000 gallon 263,000 pound capacity gross rail load car during the ethanol cycle. Than when CPC-1232 came in, that was when the Bakken was hot. And so the Bakken crude is more of a light sweet [crude] … [it] didn’t require coils and insulation. So the cars were scaled up to 286. And that meant that 30,000 gallons jumped to31,800.”

Thanks to that rule change and the production of new CPC-1232 tank cars with larger capacity, trains carryingBakken crude oilbecame heavier than the ethanol trains,using a new class of heavier tank cars traveling in dedicatedunit trains of more than 100 tankcars.

This change was also explained in two slides from a presentation titled,“The Tank Car Story: A Builder’s Perspective,” that was presented to the Northeast Association of Rail Shippers. The first slide shows that prior to 2010, the tank cars were operating with weight limits of 263,000 pounds for a loadedcar.

Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains (1)

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The next slide shows that starting in late 2011, oil trains began operating with tank cars with limits of 286,000 pounds for a loadedcar.

Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains (2)

When, in late 2011,industry started shippingBakken oil in the new 286,000-pound cars via longunit trains,a new era of rail tank car transportation began.And a mere two years later, as oil-by-rail started to reach signficant volumes, the risks of these bomb trains became more and more clear, with derailments and fires occurring in places includingLac-Mégantic, Quebec;Aliceville, Alabama; andCasselton, North Dakota (and those were just in2013).

These Trains Are Likely Too Long, TooHeavy”

As oil train derailments continued to happen, more people began to express concerns about the weight of these trains as a possible contributing factor inderailments.

Doug Finnson, president of the Teamsters Rail Conference of Canada, expressed concerns about the size and weight of the oil trains to CBC News after an oil train derailment in Canada in 2015,saying, “These trains are likely too long, too heavy, and going too fast for the track conditions inplace.”

And the Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that investigators at Canada’s Transportation Safety Board suspected that the oil trains are causing unusual trackdamage.

Petroleum crude oil unit trains transporting heavily loaded tank cars will tend to impart higher than usual forces to the track infrastructure during their operation,” the safety board said in a report. “These higher forces expose any weaknesses that may be present in the track structure, making the track more susceptible to failure.”

Excessive weight was thought to be a contributing factor in the recent oil train accident in Mosier, Oregon. That accident was caused when the bolts holding the rails in place shearedoff.

As Desmog reported at the time, there is precedent for this issue,according to rail consultant and former industry official Steven Ditmeyer. In the early 1990s, a similar problem was happening with some double-stacked container cars being too heavy for the infrastructure — because of overloaded containers — and resulting in sheared railspikes.

This sounds like a very similar circumstance to what was happening in the early 1990s with overloaded double stack container cars,” Ditmeyer toldDeSmog.

That issue was resolved when the industry started weighing the cars to make sure no cars were over the weight limit. However, thisisn’t done with rail cars transporting crudeoil.

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Hal Gard is the rail and public transit administrator for the Oregon Department of Transportation. After the accident in Mosier, he commented on the weight of the oil trains to the Associated Press,saying, “The unit trains are big and very heavy, the cars are shorter, and the oil is sloshing around inside of those cars. Are there additional strains and dynamic forces associated with that that isdifferent?”

These 286,000 pound cars are clearly heavier than the 263,000 pound cars used to move ethanol and oil prior to late 2011. There is no question that they are creating greater forces on the tracks than the lighter cars. Is this what is contributing to the higher rates of derailmentstoday?

Federal Railroad Administration Concerned About Train Weight in2013

In the weeks following the oil train disaster in Lac-Megantic, people began askinga lot of importantquestions.

Some of these questions were posed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in a July 2013 letter to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

In the July 2013 letter, Thomas J. Herrmann, Acting Director of the Office of Safety Assurance and Compliance addressed API CEO Jack Gerard, outlining several safety concerns regarding oil trains, including thefollowing:

FRA notes that tank cars overloaded by weight are typically identified when the tank cars go over a weigh-in-motion scale at a railroad’s classification yard. As indicated above, crude oil is typically moved in unit trains, and the cars in a unit train do not typically pass over weigh-in-motion scales in classification yards.

This means we know that in 2013 the FRA was questioning the API about “tank cars overloaded by weight.” And also that in the same year,the FRA had information showing the oil industry wasn’t using weigh-in-motion scales to check loaded tank carweights.

And we also know that using scales to weigh containers before double stacking them solved the overloading problem in the 1990s. Even though oil tank cars were approved for the new weight of 286,000 pounds,the FRA was questioning if they might be even heavier due to “overloading byweight.”

What was the API’s response to this letter? The Federal Railroad Administration told DeSmog it will require a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get a copy of that response, a requestwhich has been filed. Since our last FOIA request about oil trains took almost two years to get a response, we may not know for a while. The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to a request for a copy of theletter.

However, we do know that no one likes to pay to move air by rail. Empty space in a tank car translates tolost profits. Could the oil industry be overfilling the tanks to increase profit margins,resulting in cars that are “overloaded by weight”? We got some insight into this at the 2016 NTSB roundtable when Richard Kloster explained the economics of moving freight byrail.

The point is that rail is a high fixed cost proposition. So to move that first pound of freight the railroad has already incurred probably 60% of its cost to move that car. And so what shippers of anything from crude to ethanol to soda ashto grain or whatever, transportation can make or break markets. So being able to utilize the full capacity of that car and get every pound or extra ton shipped, helps them make their margins and can make or break asale.”

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Becausecrude oil can be quite heavy, we can infer that these rail tank cars are notfully loaded with liquid before reaching the 286,000 pound limit, which would leave empty space in the tank cars. But how much empty space is the industry really leaving in these oil railcars?

Would the oil industry ever put profits abovesafety?

Weight Differences: Ethanol Versus Bakken CrudeOil

Ethanol is a manufactured product that weighs 6.59 pounds per gallon. Crude oil is a raw material and can vary greatly across an area like the Bakken formation, which underlies parts ofNorth Dakota and Montana in the United States, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada.A ConocoPhilips specifications sheeton Bakken crude gave a range of 5.83-8.58 pounds per gallon for Bakken crudeoil.

Clearly, Bakken oil has the potential to bemuch heavier than ethanol, creating an opportunity for overloading tank cars with crude oil that isn’t an option with ethanol. At the NTSB round table,Greg Saxton, engineer for tank car company Greenbrier, explained that with ethanol being so light, it is possible to fill up the car before reaching the weight limit, saying, “In some cases you won’t be able to fully load that car to286,000.”

But there is another factor about the ethanol industry that limits the car weights. Because ethanol is produced in rural areas whereit may have to travel on tracks that aren’t rated to carry the heavier 286,000 pound class of tank cars,the industry is still using the lighter 263,000 pound tankcars.

Kelly Davis, director of regulatory affairs for the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry lobbying group, explained this to the NTSBroundtable:

The ethanol industry is rural so we have plants that are restricted through bridges and other infrastructure projects that still will have to load at the 263 maxpounds.”

On September 18, 2016, an ethanol unit train in Albany, New York was hauling DOT-111 cars rated for 263,000 pounds, which is clearly marked on the tank cars. (The weight of the empty tank car is 66,600 pounds. The maximum weight of material that can be loaded into it is 196,400 pounds. The combined total weight is 263,000pounds.)

Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains (3)

DOT-111 tank car as part of ethanol unit train Image credit: JustinMikulka

However, in response to the Bakken shale boom,North Dakota upgraded many of its rail lines to handle the larger, heavier tank cars that would be carrying crudeoil.

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For multiple reasons, oil trains are likely to be heavier than ethanol trains. Even though ethanol was moving by rail in large quantities for several years before the oil-by-rail business even began, ethanol trains were not derailing asthe oil trains have been, and no one was calling them bombtrains.

Is the higher rate of derailments for oil trains compared to ethanol trains evidence that perhaps 286,000 pound loaded tank cars are just too heavy for existing rail infrastructure?Should the rule change from 2011 berevisited?

The GreatBakken Oil-by-RailExperiment

When hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology unleashed a flood of crude oil fromNorth Dakota, there was a slight problem. It was primarily in rural North Dakota. And there was very little infrastructure in place, such as pipelines or ports,to move that oil. As a result, the industry started trucking it out, but this wasn’t a good long term solution because as reported by The Globe and Mail, “The trucking frenzy was chewing up roads, driving accident rates to record highs, and infuriating localresidents.”

The Canadian newspaper furtherreported in late 2013, “What should have been an economic miracle for North Dakota has instead been a logistical nightmare. Since 2009, the state has been producing oil faster than it can be shipped torefineries.”

The industry solved that problem byquickly constructing oil-by-rail loading facilities. However, what remains quite clear is that these new unit trains carryingvolatile Bakken oil hit the rails without any serious study of the dangers theyposed.

Bakken oil trains have several factors working against them in terms of safety. One is theobviouslydangerous nature of the cargo that has helped earnthese trains the nickname, “bomb trains,” due to their derailments causing dramatic fires and explosions. A second factor is that these trains are much longer than the average freight train. Another is that tank cars carrying oil have a greater potential for the phenomenon known as”sloshing”than existswith ethanolcars.

Finally, thanks to the federal rule change in 2011 — which occurred in the midst of North Dakota’s “logistical nightmare” — Bakken oil trains were now heavier than what had been the standard for the ethanolindustry.

Oil trains’ significantly higher rate of derailment than ethanol trains appears to revealflawsin this oil-by-rail experiment,just as these heavier trains are more apt to reveal flaws in the trackinfrastructure.

Unfortunately, the continued existence of these dangerous trains has also revealed the very serious flaws in the existing regulatory system that is supposed to be protecting the American public. The title of the NTSB hearing in July was, “A Dialogue on What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety.” The answer appears to be “more accidents that could have been easilyprevented.”

A similar hearing was held in 2014 and was run by Deborah Hersman, the head of the NTSB at the time. She resigned shortly after that meeting and made the following statement, “We know the steps that will prevent or mitigate these accidents. What is missing is the will to require people to do so.”

Hersman also explained the root of theproblem:

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Follow the money. It all comes back to themoney.”

Main image credit: JustinMikulka


How much oil can a train tanker hold? ›

Rail Tank Car Fun Facts

Typically, tank cars have up to five times the capacity of truck, holding between 6,500 gallons to more than 31,000 gallons of liquid.

How many tons can a rail car carry? ›

Railroad Equipment - CSX.com. The CSX 50' standard boxcar fleet can carry from 70 to 100 tons. Our cars are equipped with either cushioned or rigid underframes, single or double sliding or plug type doors. Interior arrangements include nailable steel or wood flooring, rails, bulkheaded and other securement methods.

How much does a train oil tanker weight? ›

A DOT-111 tank car, specification 111A100W1, constructed by fusion welding carbon steel. This car has a capacity of 30,110 US gallons (113,979 L; 25,071.8 imp gal), a test pressure of 100 psi (690 kPa), a tare weight of 65,000 pounds (29,500 kg) and a load limit of 198,000 pounds (89,800 kg).

How much does a empty railroad tanker weigh? ›

Range from 250,000 to 286,000 lbs. Range from 147,000 to 202,000 lbs.

How many gallons of fuel does it take one train to move one ton of cargo 469 miles? ›

According to the Association of American Railroads, a train can move a ton of freight an average of 469 miles on one gallon of fuel.

How much is a train car of oil worth? ›

What is each one of oil-filled those cars worth? Crude currently sells for $96 a barrel, so the oil in a single car is worth $67,872. Railroads aren't getting all that money, of course, because they are just transporting the oil.

Is there a weight limit for trains? ›

Most rail cars can have a gross weight (the total weight of the load, including the weight of the rail car itself) of up to 286,000 pounds. Heavy axle rail cars can have a gross weight of up to 315,000 pounds. By comparison, the federal gross vehicle weight limit for trucks traveling on the interstate is 80,000 pounds.

What is the load capacity of a train? ›

On an average 65 ton goods is loaded in a wagon and minimum volume of goods for loading standard size of rake is approx 2600 ton in case of bagged consignments to be carried in covered wagons and approximate 3800 tons in case of loose consignments to be carried in open wagons.

Are trains capable of hauling large loads? ›

Capable of hauling heavy loads – Trains are capable of carrying very large loads and potentially moving large numbers of people in more efficient ways. Generally, trains can haul up to 2,000 tons and have the ability to travel at more than 100 mph.

How many barrels of oil does a supertanker carry? ›

The largest tankers trading today are comparable in size and can carry up to 2 million barrels of oil. That's equivalent to 84 million gallons, or enough petroleum to fill over 5 million average sized automobile gas tanks.

How much does a fully loaded oil tanker weigh? ›

Tanker Truck Weight

While the weight will depend on the cargo, the average tanker truck weighs 33 tons when loaded. Accidents involving tanker trucks can be dangerous not only because of their large size but also because they are more likely to be carrying hazardous materials.

How do cargo trains pull so much weight? ›

The giant two-stroke, turbocharged engine and electrical generator provide the huge amount of power needed to pull heavy loads at high speeds. Cummins' locomotive engine weighs over 24,000 pounds (10,886 kilograms). The generator and electric motors add more mass on top of that.

How far can a train move a ton of freight on a single gallon of fuel? ›

In fact, trains can haul one ton of goods an average of more than 480 miles on just a single gallon of fuel, making them 3-4 times more fuel efficient than trucks. Freight rail is the most fuel-efficient way to transport freight over land, and railroads continue to invest in technology to reduce fuel consumption.

How much does a tanker rail car cost? ›

Class - DOT111A100W1 Railroad tank cars as low as $25,000 USD with free freight.

How much did the vintage railway carriage weigh? ›

The cars weighed 39 to 42 tonnes, with the First-class cars weighing one tonne less than the others, and cars with the fabricated B5 bogies also weighing one tonne less than those with the heavy cast steel Commonwealth bogies.

How many barrels of oil does a oil tanker ship hold? ›

The largest tankers trading today are comparable in size and can carry up to 2 million barrels of oil. That's equivalent to 84 million gallons, or enough petroleum to fill over 5 million average sized automobile gas tanks.

How much oil is transported by train? ›

Crude oil goes into many of the products we rely on every day, from plastics and transportation fuels to medicines and even fleece jackets. With one rail car carrying enough crude oil to make about 13,500 gallons of gasoline, railroads play a critical role in moving this important commodity.

How many gallons of oil does a locomotive use? ›

Keep in mind, the average locomotive engine crankcase holds between 200-300 gallons of lube oil, changing oil in just a few locomotives gets expensive very quickly.

How many gallons of crude oil does a tanker truck hold? ›

A tanker truck can hold about 8,000 gallons of crude oil, and since one barrel of crude oil is the equivalent of 42 gallons, that means that one tanker truck can hold about 190 barrels of oil.


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