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Transport by rail is the second most common form of crude oil transport in the Great Lakes region behind pipelines. As oil extraction from unconventional sources in the U.S. and Canada continues to increase, oil transport by rail has grown to supplement the limited capacity of oil pipelines, especially in rail transport corridors such as the Chicago East-Coast Corridor. Rail transport allows petroleum companies to increase their capacity and maintain flexibility in changing markets and to reach customers without pipeline access. Additionally, spill incidents involving trains are generally lower in volume and easier to respond to than pipeline spills. Despite this, the likelihood of a spill occurring via rail transport is much higher when compared with pipelines. Recent disasters, such as the one occurring in Lac-Mégantic, Québec in 2011, have called the safety of rail transport into question.

Where does oil transport by rail happen in the Great Lakes region?

The map below shows major freight (class I) railroads in the Great Lakes region and the location of rail terminals that process crude oil. A very small amount of crude oil does move from terminals to refineries in the region. However, the majority of crude oil movement by rail in the region is “pass through” – moving toward downstream refineries on the east coast. Data sources: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Transportation

What are the benefits of oil transport by rail?

  • Provides new capacity as pipeline capacity is exceeded by increased extractions
  • Short-term contracts allow for more flexibility in changing markets
  • Shorter transport time than pipelines
  • Can reach customers in regions without pipeline access
  • Less storage time results in decreased risk of catastrophic events
  • Spills are less likely to enter directly into a large body of water or aquifer compared to buried/submerged pipelines or ships
  • Long-term environmental impact and volume of spills is reduced compared to pipelines

What are potential drawbacks of oil transport by rail?

  • More expensive and lower capacity than pipelines
  • Spill incident and fatality rates are higher compared to pipelines
  • Increasing use has resulted in more spills in recent years

What causes spills to occur?

  • Derailments and infrastructure failure
  • Structural failure of tank cars
  • Railroad crossing accidents
  • Issues with train assembly

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