NEW YORK —
"Rail is going to remain a significant part of the way we move crude around the country for a long time," says Jason Bordoff, head of Columbia University's center on global energy policy. "I don't think this rail accident will significantly change that."
The unattended Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train was parked overnight on a rail line before it came loose, hurtling down a seven-mile incline and slamming into the center of Lac-Megantic. Donald Ross, chief investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said Friday it remained unclear whether mechanical problems or human error were to blame for the insufficient brake force.
In the first half of this year, U.S. railroads moved 178,000 carloads of crude oil. That's double the number of the same period last year and 33 times more than the same period of 2009. The Railway Association of Canada estimates that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada's tracks this year, up from 500 carloads in 2009.
Last year, 663 rail cars carrying hazardous materials derailed or were damaged in the U.S., a decline of 38 percent from 1,072 incidents in 2003, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That's comparable to the total number of train accidents per million miles traveled, which fell 43 percent over the same period, and the number of derailments, which fell 40 percent.
Whether crude traffic on the rails will continue to grow quickly depends on oil prices around the globe, but refineries are gearing up for more.
Just across the Hudson River from New York City, Phillips 66 is building a terminal for its Bayway refinery that will be able to handle up to 100 rail cars — or roughly 70,000 barrels — of crude per day.
Across the continent, in Ferndale, Wash., BP is building a 2-mile rail loop to do the same. And in Vancouver, Tesoro is building a facility that will be able to unload 170 rail cars a day.