Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on March 1, 2017.

Off the Rails

Preparing communities and responders for crude oil train derailments

On July 6, 2013, a 73-car train carrying Bakken crude oil accidently dislodged from its overnight parking spot in rural Quebec and began rolling unmanned down the tracks. The runaway train descended about 400 feet over 10 miles, gaining speed until it derailed at a turn in the village of Lac Megantic. Most of the train’s oil cars crashed violently, resulting in a fireball that destroyed more than 30 buildings, damaged numerous others, and killed 47 people. The before-and-after photos are stunning: A month before the disaster, Lac Megantic had a lively and charming village center, which the rail disaster reduced to a desolate moonscape.

I listened with rapt attention as Chris Powers, a former fire chief and the past chair of the Transport Canada Emergency Response Task Force, presented on the incident during a “Hazardous Materials Incident Commander Workshop” held recently at NFPA. The workshop’s aim was to review and clarify the tools available to support incident commanders and other responders with managing events involving pipeline and rail car spills of crude oil. It’s a timely and necessary topic; crude oil train derailments are happening more often than many of us realize and have the potential to overwhelm even the best equipped and trained emergency responders.

There have been six major derailments of trains carrying crude oil in recent years, four of which occurred in remote rural areas. Along with Lac Megantic, the sixth happened in Lynchburg, Virginia, but large-scale destruction was averted when the burning oil flowed into a local river rather than the community. The uptick in these incidents corresponds to a sharp increase in U.S. crude oil production in recent years, with much of that increased output moved to refineries by rail. In 2008, U.S. Class I railroads originated 9,500 carloads of crude oil. In 2014, they originated 493,146 carloads, an increase of nearly 5,100 percent, according to the Association of American Railroads.

In light of that information, other workshop attendees and I left believing that it’s not a matter of whether another crude oil train derailment or pipeline malfunction will occur, but when and where.

For all these reasons, NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation are keenly focused on the issue and have partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Transport Canada to provide support to the safety community to prepare. The Foundation has established a new web portal,, which summarizes useful new information for hazardous materials event incident commanders. Resources include two research reports, “High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFT) On-Scene Incident Commander Field Guide” and “Liquid Petroleum Pipeline Emergencies On-Scene Incident Commander Field Guide”; two workshop proceedings, “HAZMAT Incident Commander Workshop” and “Workshop on Key Performance Capabilities and Competencies for High Hazard Incident Commander”; and documentation supporting a freely available electronic app for field use called the HazMat FLIC App. All of this supports the emergency response infrastructure already in place, including key NFPA documents such as NFPA 471, Responding to Hazardous Materials Incidents, and NFPA 472, Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents.

The trend toward vast increases in production and transport of Bakken crude oil isn’t likely to relent—our modern society wants and needs this energy. While none of us want to see another Lac Megantic disaster, the threat is real and we need to do everything we can to be prepared.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.