Blogs are opinion pieces and reflect their author’s views

What’s all the fuss about? Four trains a day

Recent derailments of petroleum-bearing trains have resulted in increased public scrutiny of crude-by-rail. It seems that every derailment is now national news, and train movements are under a microscope. One question asked is: how safe are Canadian railroads? Another question is how often is crude oil or other dangerous goods travelling through Canadian towns?

I attempted to address the first question in a previous blog post back in July; this post is about the second – how often are dangerous goods travelling through Canadian towns?

A staggeringly small amount of rail traffic is petroleum or petroleum products

Statistics Canada’s CANSIM Table 404-0002 has monthly railway carloadings statistics by commodity. Petroleum products identified in this table include fuel oils and crude petroleum, gaseous hydrocarbons (including liquid petroleum gas), gasoline and aviation turbine fuel, and other refined petroleum and coal products. Of course, crude-by-rail is just one component of the dangerous, hazardous or flammable goods transported by rail.  Sulphur, sulphuric acid, fertilizers, and phosphate are the additional identifiably dangerous commodities available from Table 404-0002.

According to the Table, 321 million tonnes were carried by rail in 2012, and 3.1 million rail cars were loaded. Based on a train size of 100 cars, this is equivalent to 87 trains per day. As a comparison, Canada’s 17 ports handled 285.2 million tonnes of cargo in 2011 (latest data available).

A look at the data reveals a staggeringly small amount of rail traffic is petroleum or petroleum products. The four petroleum product classifications accounted for 4.3% of total car loadings, and 2.1% of total tonnage carried in 2012. Coal on its own was 5.5% of car loadings, and 3.6% of total tonnage in 2012. A surprisingly small amount of rail traffic is crude petroleum and fuel oils; only 1.8% of car loadings in 2012, and 0.9% of total tonnage shipped. While this has increased since 1999 – from 0.7% of rail cars and 0.4% of total tonnage – this is still a miniscule amount of total traffic. For all of Canada, in 2012 there were 112,907 rail car loadings of fuel oils and crude petroleum – on average, 309 cars, or three trains, per day. In 2013, between January and August, rail car loadings averaged 435 cars per day.

The other dangerous commodities – sulphur, sulphuric acid, fertilizers, and phosphate – were 2.3% of total car loadings and 1.3% of total tonnage in 2012, or 294 cars per day. It appears there is not much dangerous rail traffic in Canada – 6.6% of total car loadings including hazardous chemicals and petroleum products. This is still probably an underestimate, as there are a few other categories – “other basic chemicals” for example – that may include hazardous or flammable commodities.

In contrast, let’s think about the current capacity of an existing pipeline – Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain – which transports crude oil and refined products from Edmonton to Vancouver. The pipeline’s current capacity is 300,000 barrels per day. According to BNSF, a tank car can carry between 680 and 720 barrels of crude oil. At the low end, that’s equivalent to four and a half trains per day, and at the high end, its equivalent to just over four trains. This single pipeline carries as much crude oil as Canada’s total crude-by-rail traffic.

So what does this tell us? There is not that much dangerous commodity rail traffic in Canada. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious and legitimate concerns about safety and emergency responses, as outlined in this summer’s Senate report on crude oil transportation. New regulations should help to address these issues. And while crude-by-rail may be increasing substantially, it is nowhere near the volume transported via pipeline, and is likely to remain a marginal method of transportation for the near future.