Geologic Column: By train or pipeline: That is the question

by Fred Schwab
Monday, July 21, 2014

My wife and I (and our 49-year marriage) recently survived a 48-hour train trip from Chicago to Portland aboard Amtrak’s aptly-named “Empire Builder.” Traveling on a single-track line, the train spent a day crossing North Dakota, slowed behind empty tanker trains and shunted to side rails so oncoming, higher-priority oil cargo could pass. We met and chatted with a number of workers heading from or returning to work in the Bakken oilfields. One such conversation was with a gregarious 20-year-old high-school dropout who works for an oil company. Working stretches of 14 consecutive 12-hour days, interspersed with six-day breaks, he earns $25 per hour and also receives a $125 per diem. His total annual compensation exceeds $100,000! It’s tough work, he told us, but it’s an adventure and there’s nowhere else he could make as much money.

No wonder North Dakota’s economy is booming. Enthusiasm for such lucrative employment can dampen a person’s recognition of some of the side effects of mineral extraction, however. Unfortunately, those side effects — especially when it comes to transportation — also need to be recognized, or else they can spell real problems for people and the environment.

Transporting hazardous materials like oil on North America’s aging rail networks is risky. There are about 93,000 kilometers of crude oil pipeline in the United States and 222,000 kilometers of rail. Oil transport by rail is growing rapidly: 400,000 carloads of crude oil traveled by rail in 2013, up from 9,500 in 2008. Rail carries 270 million barrels annually (740,000 barrels each day), 10 percent of U.S. production. Production from North Dakota has doubled in the past two years to 950,000 barrels a day, and will likely reach 1.6 million barrels a day within three years. With limited pipeline capacity, close to 75 percent of Bakken production is carried by rail.

This is a hugely contentious issue, especially in the states through which the trains run. A quick survey of Oregon newspapers, for example, turns up articles about oil-train safety almost daily. And numerous train collisions and derailments have occurred over the past two years. The most noteworthy occurred in July 2013 when a string of unattended tanker cars rolled down a grade in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and burning much of the community’s downtown.

Rail companies together with local, state and federal governments have adopted voluntary steps to decrease risks associated with shipping oil, such as lowering speeds in and near cities, testing oil to be transported for volatility, inspecting tracks more frequently, adding more brakes on trains and even rerouting trains away from heavily populated areas. But more can be done.

For instance, Canadian regulators recently acted decisively. Canada will require shippers to be more transparent (disclosing content, timing and routing of shipments), and perhaps more importantly, to replace dated tanker cars over the next three years with newer cars designed to better survive wrecks. Fewer than 15,000 of the almost 100,000 North American cars in service meet updated standards. The United States should match our northern neighbor’s actions.

Of course, the real issue facing the U.S. today is whether railroads or pipelines are safer — a big factor in the argument over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline is designed to carry 830,000 barrels of oil daily from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast, a volume slightly more than the total presently transported by rail. In theory, the pipeline would also eventually carry Bakken oil to the Gulf.

Of late, it seems as though many in the scientific community are getting behind the pipeline as a safer alternative to trucks and trains. In February, former director of the U.S. Geological Survey and now Editor-in-Chief of Science Marcia McNutt endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline, saying it would be less environmentally damaging than continuing to use trucks and trains.

The challenge is that all modes of transporting oil involve spillage. In 2012, pipelines had a spill rate of 0.0005 percent, but from 2002 to 2012, rail transport had a higher spill rate (0.00085 percent). In one year, 2013, more oil was spilled from trains than in the previous four decades (48 million gallons spilled out of 11.3 billion gallons transported), a spillage rate of 0.4 percent! Rail accidents occur five to six times more frequently than pipeline spills, but when pipelines do rupture, they tend to spill three times the volume as the average rail spill.

In the end, the best way to decrease problems with safely transporting oil is obviously to decrease demand. That’s not very likely in the near future.

So, for now, we do the best we can — but what the “best” is depends on whom you ask. Either way, I highly recommend a train ride across the U.S.

Schwab is an emeritus professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. The views expressed are his own. He can be reached at

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