Editorial: Black Gold, Iron Road, Red Alert?

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Tim Haïdar


"Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train."
- Charles Barkley (1963 - )

In Northeastern Ontario, a wreck burned across the weekend. Outside of the sleepy town of Gogoma on the Mattagami River, a 94-car long crude-carrying train derailed. Some 38 cars were then involved in a loss of containment and the subsequent blaze. The line has been closed between the capital of Ontario, Toronto, and the railway and transportation hub of Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the duration of the recovery process.

The Gogoma incident is the second oil train derailment to hit Canada in a week, and the forth such incident in North America in the past month. Mercifully, these recent events have taken place outside of population centres but the spectre of the Lac-Mêgantic disaster looms large.

On July 6th 2013, an unattended 74-car train transporting crude from the Bakken Formation ran away and derailed in this small Quêbêcois town. The resultant fire caused the rupture of several tanker cars and set off an explosion with a blast radius a kilometre wide. Half of the city centre was razed to the ground and 47 people were killed.

The prodigious rise of output from North American unconventional hydrocarbon plays has entrained (pun intended) a startling increase in the amount of crude oil conveyed on the Iron Road - due in no small part to gridlock over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project.

In the United States, more than 70 per cent of the 1.04 million barrels of oil produced per day in the Bakken reached refineries in tanker cars, and since 2009, the rate of crude delivered by rail has skyrocketed more than 4800 per cent. With no definitive end in sight for the backbiting and horse-trading over Keystone XL - let alone the laying of this mammoth oil artery - the future of unconventional oil will remain on the railroads.

As long as this is the case, increasing volumes of rail traffic humming through North American towns and cities will continue to cause consternation. And the industry may be one train ride away from a "railway Macondo"....

Is crude-by-rail a disaster waiting to happen? Have your say here