It’s been scarcely three months since an oil train in Quebec exploded catastrophically, killing 47 people and leveling several blocks of a town. Then, last weekend, another oil-bearing train derailed resulting in another huge explosion:

Residents for miles around saw and heard a “large fireball” shortly after 1 a.m., [fire chief] Phelan said. “There’s been no explosion or similar event like that since.”

As before, local emergency responders were unable to put out the fire because it was simply too dangerous:

Fire officials say they have little choice but to let the fuel burn itself off, resulting in a dark, billowing cloud of smoke that remained hanging over Gainford throughout the day.

“…it’s safer just to let it flare until the product is consumed,” said Phalen, estimating the time required for burn-off to be between 24 and 72 hours.

Given that the fire could not be controlled, authorities wisely decided to evacuate residents within a mile of the scene:

Nearby resident Elaine Hughes… woke to her entire trailer shaking and looked out her window to see the entire sky lit up by the flames.

“Two fire and rescue guys came and banged on the door and [they] tell me I had to evacuate because there was a train derailment,” she said. “They told me to get dressed and I had to go.”

According to initial reports, the culprit was propane rather than crude oil. Yet the incident still raises questions about the safety of rail transport, particularly when we know that certain kinds of crude oil—including the kind planned for Northwest facilities—are prone to horrific combustion. And particularly when we’re talking about moving trains through densely populated areas, as we are in the Northwest.

What might happen if an oil-bearing train derailed in the tunnel under downtown Seattle? Or along the Edmonds waterfront? Or at a refinery?

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  • Railroad officials take an optimistic view:

    …company spokesman Mark Hallman. “The vast majority of commodities, such as dangerous commodities, that are transported from origin to destination, more than 99 per cent reach destination without any accidental release.”

    In other words, less than one train in a hundred fails to arrive safely.

    I just hope that number is a lot less than one-in-a-hundred—because the Northwest has active proposals to move more than 4,000 loaded oil trains annually.


    Thanks to Roger Annis.