Shipments of oil by rail increased 17 times faster than crude production in the U.S. in 2012, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg. This has been a boon to the railroads, which are contending with a precipitous drop in demand for coal, their biggest cargo, as utilities switch to cheaper natural gas. Fracking and other advanced techniques of oil extraction pulled crude from the ground in places like North Dakota where pipeline capacity is limited, meaning rail is often the only way to deliver the crude to refineries. The Association of American Railroads says the number of oil carloads rose more than 40-fold from 2009 through 2013, when 435,560 carloads were shipped, and kept climbing last year to an estimated 500,000.
The rail and pipeline industries each claim a safety advantage over the other and marshal supporting statistics. Railroads have had more mishaps while more oil has been spilled from pipelines. The Lac-Megantic accident shows one danger presented by rail that’s usually absent with pipelines: Because train tracks often pass through cities and towns, the danger to life and property is more acute. In neither mode of transport, though, are accidents common. “Over 99.9 percent of deliveries make it to the end user without incident,” said Cindy Schild, a senior manager at the American Petroleum Institute. Environmentalists dislike both, arguing that train and pipeline accidents demonstrate the desirability of reducing the use of fossil fuels.