Cars of Crude: Transporting Oil in the 21st Century

Cars of Crude: Transporting Oil in the 21st Century

Sometimes there are things happening out in the word and, even though you know they’re there, you don’t really pay attention to them. Then one day something happens and your interest is piqued. Such is the case with my interest in the way we transport crude oil in America. In the parlance of so many action movies, this time it’s personal.

It started with a news story on Friday morning. I saw a headline on my morning news roundup about a train derailment near Galena, Illinois. Galena happens to be part of the route we take from the city out to the house. I clicked on the news story with selfish interest. We were going to be driving to the house Friday night so I was wondering whether this derailment would have any impact on our trip.

According to the Yahoo news story about the Galena derailment, this particular train was pulling 103 cars of crude oil, plus 2 cars filled with sand. Let that sink in a moment. 105 train cars! That’s a mighty long train! Fortunately only 21 of those cars derailed in Friday’s accident. Unfortunately, those cars still burst into flames and created ginormous explosions. Also quite fortunately, this accident occurred in a sparsely populated region of the midwest. Imagine if this derailment had occurred closer to the town of Galena or if it had occurred during the height of the summer tourism season, when more people would be in the region.

A freight train pulling hundreds of cars of crude oil

Not all of these concerns occurred to me when I read the story about the Galena derailment Friday morning. Again, I was first looking at the story from a selfish standpoint. Would the crash affect me in my trip out to the house? Later that night, however, as we made that trek to the house for the weekend, we listened to an episode of Fresh Air about the risks of transporting oil by train. Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies interviews Marcus Stern in this episode and it was truly an eye opening interview. Not only are these train accidents becoming more common, thanks in large part to he Bakken region’s oil surplus, but it seems to be just a matter of time before a derailment occurs in a more densely populated city. While the trains start their journey in a very rural region of the Dakotas, they inevitably make their way through city centers along the way.

Take into consideration the fact that the train that derailed in Galena would have travelled through Chicago on its way to refineries on the East Coast. Can you imagine the devastation that would be caused by a series of rail cars exploding in a city with a population of more than 2.5 million people?

As we listened to the Fresh Air story (not coincidentally while driving through Galena) we started thinking about the freight rail line that runs through out little town. The romantic in me has always enjoyed the echoing of the train’s horn as it lumbers down the tracks less than two blocks from our house. I had assumed that these trains were carrying corn and soybeans and other farm products. Now, knowing that the trains are pulling highly explosive materials as they snake their way through town makes me a little wary of the romance of the rails.

And then Saturday morning, as I crossed the Mississippi to pick up groceries at Piggy Wiggly in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, I spied the train that’s pictured above. There, sitting on the tracks along the Mississippi River, were cars of crude. I was standing near what I assume was the middle of the train. Looking left and looking right, there were rail cars as far as my eye could see. More than a hundred of them, I’m sure. This is literally getting a little too close to home.

So what’s the solution? Pipelines? Maybe. But pipelines are expensive and, really, aren’t very safe either. Stop using so much damned oil? Well, yes, that’s the most obvious solution but it’s not very practical, is it? I mean, we still have to heat our homes and drive our cars. Frankly, I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that I am now aware of the problem. And it scares the hell out of me.

Images: This American House

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