Language selection

Transportation of flammable liquids by rail

The transportation of flammable liquids, such as crude oil, by rail across North America has created an elevated risk that needs to be mitigated effectively

 Update – What has been done

  • On 1 November 2016, Board Member Faye Ackermans discussed key rail safety issues identified on the Watchlist at the National Railway Day Conference in Ottawa
  • Senior TSB officials participated in various meetings with stakeholders such as the Railway Association of Canada and the Canadian Association of Railway Suppliers to initiate discussions around pressing safety issues.
  • A TSB Senior Investigator met with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to provide an overview of the latest Watchlist issues.

Why this matters

The transportation of crude oil by rail across North America increased exponentially starting in 2009, peaking in 2014 at 238 000 carloads in CanadaFootnote 1 and 500 000 carloads in the United States.Footnote 2 Ethanol shipments, meanwhile, were relatively stable, with an average of 76 250 carloads per year in Canada and 331 000 carloads per year in the United States.Footnote 3 Despite recent downward trends, the volume of flammable liquids being transported by rail are expected to remain significant.

Table 1. Crude oil shipments, Canada and United States, 2009, 2014, 2015
Source: Railway Association of Canada and Association of American Railroads
Year CanadaFootnote * United States
2009 500 10 800
2014 238 000 500 000
2015 189 000 425 000

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) is concerned that current railway operating practices, combined with the vulnerability of older tank cars used to transport crude oil and other flammable liquids, are not adequate to mitigate effectively the risk posed by the transportation of large quantities of such dangerous goods by rail.

The vulnerability of Class 111 tank cars has been recognized for years.Footnote 4 The Board has called for tougher standards for all Class 111 tank carsFootnote 5—not just new ones—to reduce the likelihood of product being released during accidents. A number of accidents investigated in the United States by the National Transportation Safety Board have also highlighted the vulnerability of Class 111 tank cars.Footnote 6

The TSB is encouraged that federal regulators in Canada and the United States have taken considerable action to address the situation, including the promulgation of a more robust tank car standard (Class 117), retrofit provisions, implementation timelines, and regulatory monitoring and enforcement. The actions to date by the federal regulators and the railway industry have contributed to a significant decline in the use of legacy Class 111 tank cars to transport crude oil since 2014.

Although the federal regulators and the railway industry have taken actions with respect to tank car safety, federal regulations nonetheless allow Class 111 tank cars to be used for the transport of certain flammable liquids until mid-2025. Consequently, until all higher-risk flammable liquids in North America are transported in more robust tank cars with enhanced protection, an elevated risk will remain.

Since the Lac-Mégantic derailment in July 2013, other derailmentsFootnote 7 in Canada have demonstrated that there can be significant risk to people, property, and the environment when trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids derail.

These recent occurrences highlight the need for strategic route planning and safer operations of all trains carrying dangerous goods in Canada. Railways must carefully choose the routes on which crude oil and other flammable liquids are to be carried, and ensure that train operations over those routes will be safe.

These risks must be dealt with as a North American transportation issue, because these products are transported across borders by rail operators.

 Action required

This issue will remain on the Watchlist until

  • railway companies conduct thorough route planning and analysis, and perform risk assessments to ensure that risk-control measures are effective; and
  • more robust tank cars are used when large quantities of flammable liquids are transported by rail to reduce the likelihood of a dangerous-goods release during accidents.

 Related information

 Previous Watchlists