On Monday an oil train carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude oil derailed in West Virgina, setting 19 tanker cars on fire. Eyewitnesses described fireballs shooting into the sky. Two nearby towns were evacuated, and a state of emergency was declared. "It was a little scary. It was like an atomic bomb went off," one witness told the AP. The train was carrying oil from North Dakota's shale fields.
Here in Minneapolis, as many as 50 trains carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken region pass through the city every week, according to a story reported in the Star Tribune last summer. Most of those trains are BNSF trains, the story notes. Yet the actual number of oil trains traveling through the Twin Cities could be even higher.
Getting updated, transparent, real-time data on oil trains isn't easy. That's because the railroads don't make it public; they only give estimates when there is a request via transportation authorities under the Data Practices Act. Public officials across the country have criticized the lack of publicly available data, especially given the dangers counties face with a possible derailment. And some say the estimates railroads are releasing are conservative at best.
According to public data from the Railroad Crossings website, which updates information from the Department of Transportation, 14 BNSF trains pass through Minneapolis and the downtown crossing every day. Each BNSF train can carry 3 million gallons of oil. Though it's important to note that not every BNSF train is carrying Bakken crude oil, BNSF asserts. According to BNSF's own data, which was distributed this summer only to those on "need to know basis," a baseline high of 44 trains carrying crude oil travels through Hennepin County and the Twin Cities per week.
Last summer, I followed the oil trains along the Great River Road, watching through my car's passenger window the giant locomotives snaking through tiny towns along the Mississippi. In Trempealeau, Wis., they shoot through town like never-ending meteor showers. An average of 50 BNSF trains a day mean forlorn horns become simple background noise.
While oil production has slowed down on the Bakken region, it doesn't equate to fewer oil trains in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Updated numbers from the Star Tribune in December reveal that even more oil trains are passing through Minnesota than first reported, with most coming through the Twin Cities. That's because on the Canadian Pacific Railway, the weekly number of trains has risen from four per week to nine.
There's a real reason residents should be worried about the amount of oil being transported through our backyards. For one thing, Bakken crude oil, in particular, is regarded as potentially more flammable than other crude oil. From Mother Jones:
Bakken crude is regarded as potentially more flammable than traditional crude, thus posing an increased hazard. And since the derailment of a train hauling Bakken crude killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, the type of tankers involved in these accidents has become the subject of intense scrutiny. Both Canada and the United States have called for tougher safety standards, including upgrading the tankers. In mid-January, Canada announced it would take older tankers, known as the "DOT-111", off the network years sooner than the United States will, putting the two countries at odds over increased safety measures on the deeply integrated system.
Attempts at safety measures might be increasing, but don't expect rail companies to be more transparent about the number of oil trains traveling through the city and the rest of the state anytime soon. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Order, which was issued in May of last year, railroad companies were required only to provide a "reasonable estimate" of the number of oil trains carrying Bakken crude oil through each county within each state it travels. What's more, they were only required to release an estimate of trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of Bakken oil. In other words, this is your notice, Minneapolis. There are lots of trains carrying Bakken oil through the Twin Cities.
Wondering where the oil trains travel in the Twin Cities? These great maps from MN2020, updated last year, make it a bit easier to see where and how they travel.