Pipeline vs. rail

Aerial photo of the West Virginia train derailment, made available by the Office of the Governor of West Virginia.
Credit: AP Photo/Office of the Governor of West Virginia, Steven Wayne Rotsch


safely transporting crude


Have you been watching the news?

Recent history has brought train accidents involving oil cars and their accompanying spillage into the national spotlight. Four such accidents have occurred in North America in the past two months. This comes on the heels of a relatively disastrous 2013 and 2014 in terms of oil-transporting train accidents. According to NBC News, more oil was spilled from trains in 2014 than any year since the federal government began collecting data in 1975, eclipsing the record set the previous year.


Recent wreckage:
























It’s a given that our population will continue using fossil fuels in large quantities well into the future, and until the wonderful day arrives when Star Trek-style transporter technology is available, the world will have to continue moving the aforementioned large quantities of petroleum products via traditional transportation methods. Currently, the primary traditional methods are rail and pipeline, but is one better than the other in terms of safety and accident record?


Pipeline, is that the answer?

With every pipeline construction project being a highly politicized process featuring miles of red tape, armies of lobbyists, and stacks on stacks of money, it’s natural that each side of the pipeline versus railroad debate battles fiercely for their respective positions. As one would expect there are pros and cons of each, and it would be a fool’s errand to search for a simple, definitive answer.


Some studies show pipeline transportation being considerably safer with accidents occurring more frequently by rail, while other research indicates that when a pipeline does spill oil, it tends to spill more than a typical rail accident. The numbers back up each account, and common sense does as well. Trains travel hundreds and thousands of miles at high speed through varying landscapes and levels of population with a large degree of human control. Of course there is potential for more accidents than liquids and gases flowing through a pipe.


Where does that leave us?

One aspect missing from the points mentioned above is the total volume of petroleum moved by each transportation method. In 2013, the total amount of crude oil moved by pipeline was 8.3 billion barrels compared to 291 million barrels transported by railroad. Seventy percent of crude oil and petroleum products in the U.S. are shipped by pipeline, which skew the statistics more than a little.

So where does that leave us in pipeline vs. rail discussion. One of the few indisputable facts is that petroleum products need to be transported for the foreseeable future, and pipelines and railroads will each fill an enormous part of the world’s needs in that regard. Unfortunately, accidents are bound to happen at some point regardless of the transportation method used, but both industries are working hard and investing heavily to improve their safety records.

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