The genre of science fiction has given us innumerable hours of entertainment, thought-provoking scenarios of utopian and dystopian futures, and enticing glimpses of technology to come. A common theme, particularly in the utopian futures, is the limitless availability of energy. With power sources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the techno-future NEVER runs out of gas… though Bill Pullman, John Candy and company were not so prescient in “Spaceballs“;

LONE STARR What’s that?
BARF I don’t know. I don’t know. We’re losing power. Why? ‘Cause  we’re outta gas.
LONE STARR We must’ve burned it up [using the] hyperactive [drive].
BARF I told you we should’ve put more than five bucks worth in.

Here in the real world, the Arc Reactor which powered Tony Stark’s Iron Man isn’t available… the Series 800 Energy Cell found inside Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator hasn’t made it to market… and “human batteries”, the dark energy source from “The Matrix” hopefully never will. Most of the energy consumed in the United States comes from more mundane sources, indeed, most of it still comes from underground.

With fossil fuels still making up 81% of our energy diet, we’re a ways off from the clean, limitless (or at least renewable) energy of the sci-fi future. Even with wind farms springing up like sunflowers on the high plains, and with the U.S. energy economy adding about 125 solar panels every minute, we will be pulling petroleum products from the ground for several more years at least.

A monumental increase in available resources benefits no one unless those resources can be brought to the table. After extraction, crude oil can ride to the refineries by pipeline, by truck, by train or by boat, with pipelines carrying the largest share.  From

In both the United States and Canada, more crude oil, petroleum products, and natural gas are transported in pipelines than by all other modes combined, using the unit of ton-mile which is the number of tons shipped over number of miles

Though the Irons carry a meager 3% of the crude oil ton-miles, other economic and logistic factors are driving an increase in the volume of crude shipped by rail.

What happens to all that crude? Here, from 2014, is a breakdown of the products made from a carload of crude oil:


New supplies in Texas and North Dakota are located in regions not served by existing pipelines, and rail is the best available method for moving these resources, however, a spate of accidents involving crude tank cars has led to a reassessment of the technology. In 2013 an estimated 400,000 carloads of crude were transported on the Irons, totaling about 11.5 billion gallons of oil. Even though an impressive 99.99% arrived without incident, 1.15 million gallons of crude was spilled. Environmental effects of these spills are very serious, requiring expensive and time-consuming cleanup. The volatile nature of the cargo can also result in explosions and fire, destroying property and taking lives. That same year in the small town of Lac Megantic, Ontario, Canada, a bizarre series of events conspired to send a 70+ cars carrying crude oil barreling into the downtown area. The resulting explosion and fire claimed the lives of 47 people and dramatically illustrated the need for safer oil tank cars.

Petroleum, literally “rock oil” from the Latin words “petra” and “oleum”, has been a part of human society for at least 4000 years. The walls of Babylon were mortared with asphalt, the Phoenician ships of the Punic Wars were caulked with pitch, and the alleged medicinal properties of the heavy black liquid spurred the 4th century Chinese to drill oil wells using bamboo. In the 16th century at Baku (on the Caspian Sea in what is now Azerbaijan ), hand dug wells over 100 feet deep brought oil to the Persian Empire. The first modern oil well was drilled near there in 1848. The next year, Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner distilled “kerosine” from coal and the modern petrochemical industry born. In 1897, the price of whale oil was 40 cents a gallon; kerosene was 7 cents and the whale oil lamp had ceased to burn. By the time John D. Rockefeller organized the Standard Oil Trust, the new fuel was being hauled half way around the globe in 23-masted vessels known as “kerosene clippers” to serve the insatiable thirst of Chinese “Mei Foo” lamps.
While ships, both sail and steam, were great for carrying Rockefeller’s oil to China, they were not so well versed at carrying it to Kansas. By the time of the Pennsylvania Oil Boom of 1865, the Shiny Irons were well established as a heavy hauling solution. That boom oil was transported on flatcars which had wooden staves banded together to form a “tank” on top… basically a barrel on a flatcar. Wrought iron, and later steel tanks, soon replaced the wooden barrels, and in 1903 tank car companies developed the first safety standards… 10,000 tank cars were on the rails by then. Tank car construction techniques and safety standards would continue to be improved as different commodities found their way onto the Irons. Riveted construction gave way to welds, better sealed and protected loading and unloading valves were designed, tanks were made stronger and tank heads (the rounded ends of the tank are called the “heads”) were made resistant to puncture.
Until recently, the majority of tank cars used to transport crude oil were designed to the DOT-111 specification, circa 1968. These include the cars involved in the Lac Megantic crash. Several of the DOT-111 cars had been retrofitted by their owners with increased protection, however events had made it clear an entirely new specification was needed. The Association of American Railroads had issued specification CPC-1232 which mandated increased strength and thermal protection for cars ordered after October 1, 2011 and destined to haul crude oil or ethanol. A completely new set of marching orders came from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, with the Final Rule published in the Federal Register on May 8, 2015. This comprehensive overhaul of tank car standards not only addresses the cars themselves, but also , but also speed regulations, track integrity, crew certification, implementation timelines and many other related issues. The construction standards mandated include the use of stronger and thicker steel for tank construction, the application of a thermal “blanket” around the tank, jacketing and insulation to enclose and protect the tank as well as changes to better protect the valves on top and bottom of the tank. The intent of the new construction standard is to greatly reduce the chances of a tank being ruptured in a derailment, as well as to greatly increase the time an unruptured tank can be exposed to fire before the contents get hot enough to cause an explosion. Other issues addressed by the rule are designed to minimize the chances of a tank car coming off the rails. Starfire Engineering is already up to speed, with a new design in place for a DOT-117 specification rail car;

An insulated and jacketed Crude Oil Tank Car designed to new D.O.T. 117 specifications was completed for a manufacturer. Using innovative design methods, Starfire started from a clean sheet of paper to design the car. The tank car features a stub sill strong enough to meet or exceed the latest load requirements for Crude Oil Tank Cars. Starfire designers communicated with vendors chosen by the manufacturer to select materials and components best suited to the application. Upon completion of the design, Starfire produced a complete Manufacturing Drawing package, Component and Specialty Item lists and Bills Of Materials to facilitate manufacture of the car. Additionally, Analysis Reports were prepared detailing the results of Starfire’s Engineering Analysis. A submission package was prepared for regulatory agency New Design Approval and Starfire worked closely with the regulatory agencies and the manufacturer until the final Design Approval was received. See our web site for more information.

We’ll be using petroleum products for quite a while, and delivering the raw material will continue to be a contentious issue, as all of the available transport methods have drawbacks. Pipeline ruptures and spills have had tragic environmental consequences. A 2013 pipeline failure in North Dakota — caused when a lightning strike damaged the pipeline – put over 800,000 gallons of crude on the ground, and in 2015, a break in a pipeline near Santa Barbara, California resulted in 100,000 gallons going into the Pacific Ocean, and a cleanup bill topping $70million. Water transport is not immune to failure, as the 2014 Kirby Barge spill near Port Arthur, Texas illustrates. This accident, caused by a collision, leaked 168,000 gallons of oil into Galveston Bay. And 25 years later, oil still fouls the water and the beaches of Prince William Sound, Alaska from the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989;

Oil seeps from the rocks on the shore of Prince William Sound, Alaska

Spills from both pipelines and water transport tend to be harder to contain and more expensive to clean up. Rail tank car spills are much smaller, but the nature of the mode of transport means they can occur almost anywhere; in a remote area on the plains, in a mountain river gorge, or in a metropolitan area. More important than the “pipeline-or-rail” debate is the imperative of making BOTH methods as safe as they can be made;

So there are two separate arguments to make. You could say that more-frequent rail accidents make crude-by-rail an inherently more dangerous game than pipelines, because locomotives travel at high speeds and are more likely to explode and kill people. Or you could also say that larger spills from pipelines are worse, because they’re tough to clean up and pose long-term risks to human and environmental health.

Or, you could choose a third argument: that both rail and pipelines pose serious risks to human health, and instead of forcing people to choose between two dangerous options, we should focus on improving the safety of both modes of transport….

Rail transport offers the logistical advantages of being able to route the product to the places it is needed, and of being able to respond almost immediately to an increase in demand for capacity. The new safety requirements for crude oil tank cars will reduce the likelihood of cars coming off the track, and will greatly reduce the amount of oil spilled when accidents do occur.

… and making the Irons as safe as possible will keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!


Sherman’s Neckties

“How Now Brown Cow and the Moo Wave” , one of the featured acts on the wonderful children’s show “The Muppets”, had a big hit with a tune called “Danger’s No Stranger”. Counseling their audience to avoid situations where injury might occur;

(If you get hurt) I don’t know how I’d spend my days
(So stay alert) When crossing streets better look both ways
And half way cross, don’t change your mind
And learn to read that danger, danger sign (danger)

One of the perils referenced by the bovine band was “… [don’t] mention Sherman in Savannah”, a reference to U.S. Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “scorched earth” march through Georgia and South Carolina. A major endeavor of the campaign was to disrupt and destroy the railroads leading into Atlanta. Union troops pulled up the tracks, burned the ties and scattered rail and spike to the winds, but within weeks, even days, the tracks were in use again. Finally an order was issued calling for;

“… twisting the bars when hot. Officers should be instructed that bars simply bent may be used again, but if when red hot they are twisted out of line they cannot be used again. Pile the ties into shape for a bonfire, put the rails across and when red hot in the middle, let a man at each end twist the bar so that its surface become spiral.”

Union soldiers making “Sherman’s Neckties”

Rails which had merely been bent could be straightened… heating the rail to red heat served to both permanently distort the shape of the rail and to compromise the strength of the steel, making straightening impossible. Rails were bent into pretzles, bent around trees, made completely useless. In the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia is a monument featuring a replica of a couple of “Sherman’s Neckties”.


Play A Train Song
In the twilight of life, country great Merle Haggard reminisces of his youthful fascination with the Irons…

“Oil Tanker Train”; the Hag, from his 2010 album “I Am What I Am”.

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