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A Near Miss from Disaster: Oil Train Derails in Philadelphia

January 20, 2014

Bakken Shale oil train derailed over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on January 20th, 2014. Photo: NBC Chicago/SkyForce

Philadelphia’s wake-up call is here. A few months ago, Protecting Our Waters started warning people about the dangers of the fracked oil trains coming to Philadelphia from the Bakken Shale formation out west. We’ve reported on multiple oil train explosions and derailments across North America, one of which, in Lac Megantic, Canada killed 47 people. As of this morning, the threat of an accident here in Philadelphia is no longer hypothetical.

Just after 1 a.m. this morning, seven cars of a 101-car CSX train from Chicago derailed on the Schuylkill Arsenal Railroad bridge over the Schuylkill River. Six were carrying crude oil, and one was carrying sand. ABC 6 Action News and Fox Philadelphia have short videos on the derailment, although the AP story they include incorrectly states that the accident occurred around 1 p.m. The bridge runs just south of the South Street Bridge from University City to Grays Ferry. It also runs over the heavily-trafficked Schuylkill Expressway, which was shut for two hours following the derailment. Unlike in previous U.S. derailments, this is a densely-populated area. It’s also in close proximity to large institutions, among them Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania medical complex, including Children’s Hospital; and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge over the University of Pennsylvania's fields, the Schuylkill Expressway, and the Schuylkill River. From Google Maps

The Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge over the University of Pennsylvania’s fields, the Schuylkill Expressway, and the Schuylkill River. From Google Maps

As the trains were carrying oil from out west and following a route we know that the Bakken oil trains take on their way to the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia, it’s a safe bet that these were the same trains that have derailed and exploded four times in the last eight months and whose construction and contents are becoming notorious for their safety hazards. Of course, it doesn’t help that the trains were crossing a 100-year-old bridge that now sees two mile-long oil trains each day. Fortunately, none of the cars fell off the bridge, nor have authorities found any leaks. News photos show the cars almost dangling from the narrow two-track bridge, precariously close to falling into the river. As of 9 a.m. this morning, they were still there.

As with pipeline explosions and leaks, it seems like oil train derailments and explosions are becoming business as usual. Also as usual, authorities aren’t sure what may have caused the train to derail. That’s a question that needs to be answered before any more of these trains run. Will it be? That’s partly up to us– and to you.

So Philadelphians, or anyone else living in the path of these “bomb trains”: write and call your elected officials and ask them if they have an evacuation plan for if disaster occurs. Urge them to make sure the trains are stopped to ensure residents’ safety; join our regional letter-writing campaign (contact powinquiries@gmail for fact sheets and more information), and tell your neighbors about the threat chugging right through our backyards.

  1. Jerry Lee Miller permalink
    January 20, 2014 10:37 am

    Thank you for your coverage!

  2. January 20, 2014 12:14 pm

    This predatory industry must be stopped, and we can start by firing the corrupt politicians that have allowed them to get away with risking our public health, safety, environment, and the future of our children. Regardless of the activity, if there is no safeguards to handle the most predictable emergencies, it shouldn’t be done.

  3. Tim Truscott permalink
    January 20, 2014 6:37 pm

    Oil Train Derailments 2013
    U.S. and Canada

    There have been a number of derailments and spills of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada since early March of 2013:

    1) On March 7, 2013, 15 Bakken crude oil tank cars derailed on Pan Am Railways near Mattawamkeag, Maine, just yards from the Penobscot River. A total of 13 of the 15 derailed cars tipped over. About three gallons spilled onto the ground.

    2) March, 2013, CP Rail had a derailment and spill at Parkers Prairie, Minnesota . There, 14 of a train’s 94 cars derailed, leaking about 1,000 gallons, or about 24 barrels, of oil. Fortunately, the ground was frozen, so oil did not enter the soil.

    3) April, 2013 a CP Rail freight train carrying oil derailed in Ontario. Two of the roughly 20 cars contained crude. About 400 barrels of oil spilled, although CP’s original estimate was four barrels of oil.

    4) May, 2014, five tank cars ferrying crude oil and operated by CP Rail derailed near Jansen, Sask., in May. One car leaked about 575 barrels of oil.

    5) On July 3, 2013 four tank cars in a 92-car Pan Am Railways train derailed near Beazia, Maine, on the banks of the Penobscot River. There were no leaks reported.

    6) July 6, 2013 Lac-Megantic disaster in Quebec on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. A total of 47 people were killed and much of the downtown area of Lac-Megantic was destroyed.

    7) July 26, 2013 Lloydminster, Alberta eight tank cars and a locomotive derailed and overturned. None of the tank cars leaked, although the locomotive leaked diesel fuel.

    8) October 19, 2013, a Canadian National train with four tank cars carrying crude oil and nine loaded with liquified petroleum gas derailed near Gainford, Alberta, resulting in a large fire and causing the entire community to be evacuated
    9) November 8, 2013, 20 tank cars of a 90-car Bakken crude oil unit train on one of Genesee & Wyoming’s railroads, the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway, derailed in rural western Alabama resulting fire, explosions and contamination of wetlands. No one was killed or injured.

    10) December 10, five cars of a CSX Bakken crude oil train derailed in Cheektowaga, a suburb just east of Buffalo, NY. Three of the cars tipped over on their sides while two cars stayed upright. No oil was spilled.

    11) On December 30, 2013 a Burlington Northern Santa Fe crude oil train ran into a derailed BNSF grain train near Casselton, North Dakota, causing a massive fire and explosions. As many as 10 tanks cars were burning, causing massive clouds of toxic black smoke. Fortunately, this incident occurred in a rural area and no one was injured. The fire burned for two days.

    12) On January 8, 2014, a 122-car Canadian National consisting of both crude oil and propane tank cars derailed in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada, resulting in a large fire. Four of the derailed cars carried crude oil and four of the cars carried propane. The evacuation involved 150 people.

    13. On January 20, seven cars of a 101-car CSX crude oil train derailed on the Schuylkill Arsenal Railroad bridge over the Schuylkill River. Six were carrying crude oil, and one (the “buffer car” between the locomotives and the oil tank cars) was carrying sand. The bridge runs over the heavily-trafficked Schuylkill Expressway, which was shut for two hours following the derailment. Unlike in previous U.S. explosions, this is a densely-populated area. It’s also in close proximity to large institutions, among them Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania medical complex, including Children’s Hospital; and the University of Pennsylvania.

  4. January 20, 2014 11:19 pm

    The whole railway here is 100 years old and in poor at best condition. It needs to be totally rebuilt to modern standards and with fail safe’s in place. I refuse to drive under or near this bridge due to the condition it is in.

  5. Jim Sandoe permalink
    January 21, 2014 9:22 am

    I’ve been trying to trace the route this train uses. It seems like it has to go through Lancaster County. Do you have any information on that? I would like to contact the correct local officials.

    • Tim Truscott permalink
      January 21, 2014 3:10 pm

      These CSX Bakken crude oil trains passing through Philadelphia are brought from North Dakota to the Chicago area by Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe. They are then handed over to CSX, which carries them east to Buffalo, then across New York State to Selkirk, near Albany, where they head down the CSX River Line (on the west shore of the Hudson River), through New Jersey and to a former Sunoco refinery near Phildelphia.

      • Coryn S. Wolk permalink*
        January 24, 2014 1:39 pm

        That’s useful information, Tim. Do you have a specific source for that? It’s unsurprisingly tricky to find a clear and comprehensive map of how different services/rail companies connect and the full route the trains take.

  6. Jerry Lee Miller permalink
    January 21, 2014 10:28 am

    I cannot find ANY news coverage on this derailment in the last 16 hours. Don’t the Philadelphia media outlets see this as a story, let alone a MAJOR story? Are the tracks cleared yet? If not, are the 2 daily trains finding other tracks through Philly or are trains loaded with this explosive crude sitting somewhere?

  7. Tim Truscott permalink
    January 21, 2014 11:37 am

    More Oil Spilled from Trains in 2013 Than in Previous Four Decades, Federal Data Show:

    • January 23, 2014 9:30 pm

      And how much has oil traffic increased–what about the incidence of other rail accident
      It is the railroad and equipment failing not the cargo–

      • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
        January 26, 2014 5:13 pm

        More oil spilled from the tracks in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined. That’s extreme. See this among many articles on that topic: One has to wonder, Thad, why exactly it is that you are so sure that there is nothing wrong with the Bakken Shale oil when there is widespread, hard-hitting documentation that the cargo IS super-flammable, super-explosive, dangerous and deadly.

      • Tim Truscott permalink
        January 26, 2014 7:51 pm

        Here’s a link to a new video documentary on the crude oil train problem, focusing on Albany, NY (6 min.):

  8. January 21, 2014 12:05 pm

    Reblogged this on Environmental Explorations and commented:
    My two worlds are colliding: check out this post about a train from the Bakken Shale Formation (in North Dakota) derailing in my home city of Philadelphia.

    • Coryn S. Wolk permalink*
      January 24, 2014 1:38 pm

      Thank you for the reblog, Abbey! The towns and cities connected by these trains and the life cycle of fossil fuels have a lot to learn from each other. We just hope that people learn fast enough to keep the same disasters from occurring over and over again across the country.

  9. January 23, 2014 9:27 pm

    Folks it is not the cargo it the railroad and their equipment at fault – It could a benign cargo or one even more dangerous.

    • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
      January 26, 2014 5:03 pm

      Thad, as a former drilling fluid engineer you should know better. It’s not an either-or: rail cars are inappropriate, tracks are old, and it IS the cargo, absolutely — which many experts now believe should be re-classified as a Class I Explosive material and handled accordingly. It is the cargo which is exploding sky-high into fireballs, including the extraordinarily deadly explosion in Lac-Megantic and the other four that came in quick succession after those 47 people died. See “Fracking chemicals may make oil extra explosive,” from Grist, –And keep in mind that the volatile organic compounds in the Bakken Shale oil; the high hydrogen sulfide content; and the fracking chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, all create different risk factors: pressure, carcinogenity, emissions which are deadly to the human respiratory system, corrosion, and explosivity. The combination of all these risk factors in the cargo itself, the Bakken Shale oil and gas, is the problem. That is the reason that mere monitoring and regulating of the railroad equipment does not solve the problem.

  10. February 12, 2014 3:56 pm

    First Responders ask federal administrations to consider adding secondary containment to rail tank cars used to transport chlorine gas, providing lifesaving safety to First Responders and the public they serve. See First Responders Comments at PETITION C KIT.


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