In the wake of Canada's worst train accident in 150 years, where a crude oil-bearing train derailed, causing at least five cars to explode and killing a presumed 50 people, the question has arisen: Just how safe is oil transport by rail?
With five major oil refineries in northern Salt Lake and southern Davis counties, Utah sees frequent railway transport of oil, much of which must pass through "high-threat urban areas" across the densely populated Wasatch Front, said Aaron Hunt, director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific Railroad.
To ensure the safe and efficient transport of hazardous materials, Hunt said UP has invested $31 billion from 2000 to 2011 to make improvements to its 32,000 miles of railway infrastructure west of the Mississippi River -- 1,343 miles of which are in Utah.
"Our business is centered on providing our customers great business," he said. "It's imperative that we be able to operate safely and efficiently."
Hunt said these investments go toward replacing rails, railroad ties and ballasts -- something he said is done to minimize risk of derailments.
Routine inspections are also performed on tank cars used by UP, Hunt said, to ensure the security and safety of all equipment used for shipments.
As the United States has continued to increase its oil consumption, it has driven the need for more infrastructure for the transportation of crude oil, Hunt said. UP -- the largest railroad company in the country -- saw chemical shipments increase nationwide by 13 percent in 2012.
"It's all based on our customers and their needs."
Domestic transport of crude oil by UP rose to 140,000 cars in 2012, Hunt said, compared to the 25,000 cars transported in 2011. Most of these shipments were bound for one of the many refineries in the country's gulf area, he said.
UP and all other Class 1 railroad companies are banned by federal law from refusing a customer's request for shipment of hazardous materials, Hunt said.
"The federal government requires Union Pacific to transport hazardous materials, whether we want to or not," he said.
Despite the 99.997 percent of crude oil shipments that Hunt said reach their destination without incident, there is still an approximate 0.003 percent of shipments that cannot boast such success. With the increase in demand for oil transport in recent years, there has been a higher propensity for incidents like that of the fatal derailment of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. train in Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town in eastern Quebec, near the Maine border.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that an engineer allegedly failed to engage the appropriate hand brakes during a standard inspection procedure. This resulted in the unmanned, 74-car train hurtling down a nearly 7-mile-long incline into the small town's center, where it derailed at a speed of 63 mph and burst into a
The Lac-Megantic accident is the deadliest in Canada's history since a train plunged into a Quebec river in 1864, killing 99.
As a result of the investment made by UP into the improvement of its railway infrastructure in America, derailments have decreased by 26 percent since 2000, Hunt said. This has been reflected in Utah, where Association of American Railways data shows derailments decreased from 30 derailments in 2003 to nine in 2012.
This data also shows that in the 10 years ending in 2013, there has only been one train incident resulting in a crude oil release. It was classified as a "non-serious incident" by the Department of Transportation.
A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said that even in cases where only a small amount of hazardous material is released, as was the case in the West Lake incident in 2005, an incident report must be made.
Besides the precautions Hunt said UP takes to prevent oil releases, he said it also conducts routine training with local emergency responders to prepare for potential hazardous-material incidents.
The Lac-Megantic crash has raised questions about the rapidly growing use of railways to transport oil in North America, as well as the continued need improve the safety of the continent's rails.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.