Oil By Rail: Why Aren't Ethanol Trains Bomb Trains Too?

About the Series

Since 2013 there have been 15 major derailments of trains carrying Bakken crude oil. Many of these accidents have resulted in large fires and explosions, earning these oil trains a reputation as “bomb trains.”

However, Bakken crude oil is not the only hazardous material being moved in large volumes by rail. Since 2010 more ethanol has been moved by rail than crude oil. Yet ethanol trains have not experienced the same high-profile derailments and explosions. In fact, crude oil trains are derailing at a rate double that of ethanol trains.

This DeSmog investigative series explores potential reasons Bakken oil trains are more likely than ethanol trains to derail, and includes looking at such factors as train length, sloshing of tank car contents, train weight, and the use of unit trains, which carry only oil or ethanol. 

The latest regulations governing the transport of flammable materials by rail allow the ethanol industry a significantly longer timeline for improving train safety compared to the rules for Bakken oil trains. Yet based on current ethanol industry trends and signs, North America will likely see an increase in derailments of ethanol trains — and perhaps create a new class of bomb trains at the same time.

In This Series


On March 8, a train pulling 80 tank cars of ethanol derailed in Providence, Rhode Island. Luckily, no ethanol was spilled and no one was injured. However, activists immediately began calling for a ...

Fracking companies are donating hundreds of thousands of pounds to a select group of UK MPs and Lords, parliamentary data reveals. The contributions give the shale gas industry privileged access t...