Energy. Environment. Economy.

What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Patrick Semansky / AP

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia with tank cars in the background. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

News footage of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night shows nearby tank cars that look similar to the rail cars carrying crude oil or other hazardous material across the country each day. In aerial photos, it looks as if the Amtrak train, traveling at 100 miles an hour, nearly missed creating an even greater catastrophe, if it had struck an oil train, say, or a train carrying chlorine gas. Residents quickly took to twitter, wondering about the content of those tank cars, and whether it was hazardous.

“This could be just one more in a litany of near misses,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, an activist group working to ban oil trains.

Conrail spokesman John Enright confirmed on Thursday that the nearby tanker cars did not contain flammable crude oil or ethanol. But he wouldn’t say what was in those cars, only that some cars in the yard were empty, and others weren’t.

But it wouldn’t be far-fetched for a passenger rail car to collide with an oil train, dozens of oil trains run through the state on their way to Philadelphia and South Jersey refineries each week. In fact, Norfolk Southern runs oil trains on a track that crosses above Amtrak lines, close to the derailment. Bakken crude oil from North Dakota crosses those lines daily, traveling across the Delaware river, and down to refineries in South Jersey. WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald says he saw the black tankers about 50 yards from the derailed Amtrak train. Oil trains frequently run parallel to commuter rail lines throughout the city.

But it’s still unclear what is in those tank cars sitting near the Amtrak crash site.

Below is a video of an oil train running parallel to a Center City bound SEPTA train on the West Trenton line, during a morning commute from the Langhorne Station. (Eugene Sonn, WHYY)

“It could be corn oil, it could be very benign stuff,” Conrail spokesman John Enright told StateImpact on Wednesday.

The accident occurred on Amtrak’s rail lines, but the scene is very close to a Conrail yard, which Enright says is used for local transport.

“I know the sensitivity to the whole crude oil situation,” said Enright. “One shouldn’t presume anything.”

Enright says Conrail knows what’s in the cars on their tracks but considers it proprietary information, not to be revealed unless there’s an emergency.

“If there was an incident then that information would be readily available to [first responders],” he said.

In this case, the Amtrak train did not hit any nearby freight cars, so the contents of the black tankers remains a mystery.

Norfolk Southern, which operates the oil trains that cross the Amtrak line, did not respond to requests for comment. And the American Association of Railroads would also not comment on the freight rail traffic in the area. Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management would not comment on the contents, saying they were focusing on the accident itself. The National Transportation Safety Board referred questions to the Federal Railroad Administration. But the FRA did not respond to questions. And a spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he didn’t know what is in the nearby rail cars.

But rail safety experts say the accident could have been much worse if the Amtrak train did hit those black tank cars, and if those cars were carrying explosive or flammable material.

A passenger is carried following an Amtrak train crash Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York City. (AP Photo/Paul Cheung)

Paul Cheung / AP Photo

A passenger is carried following an Amtrak train crash Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York City. (AP Photo/Paul Cheung)

Fred Millar is an independent rail safety expert.

“Having the oil train sitting there is not necessarily an undangerous situation,” said Millar.

Millar says, although it’s rare, trains have been known to run into each other. Federal investigators recently released a report about an oil train explosion in North Dakota in 2013, where the train hit a derailed freight train.

“One kind of industrial accident can set off another,” he said.

Not only would the death toll be higher, but the neighborhood would need to be evacuated.

Jim Blaze is an economist and railroad consultant who worked in the railroad industry for 30 years.

“Let’s say there was [hazardous material] in those rail cars,” said Blaze. “If the cars cracked open, it could have been an explosive force and caused a chain reaction. What would the casualty rate have been as a result? Could you imagine evacuating 750,000 people? What’s that going to cost? What’s the lost business revenue?”

Not only is it unclear what’s in those nearby tank cars. It’s unclear if Philadelphia’s first responders would be ready. The city’s Office of Emergency Management says it’s done exercises to prepare. But it’s not clear if the exercise has included passenger rail cars.

Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency spokesman Cory Angell says that’s not a scenario he’s heard discussed.

Delaware County’s Office of Emergency Management says the risk of an Amtrak or regional rail line hitting an oil train while traveling through Delco is low because the passenger rail cars don’t run in close proximity to the oil trains, as they do in Philadelphia. Ed Truitt runs Delaware County’s OEM.

“We’ve looked at a lot of different scenarios and that was never conceived as being a threat in Delaware County,” said Truitt.

Truitt says the rail cars only travel between midnight and 5 AM through the county.

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to block the implementation of new oil train safety rules. On Thursday environmental groups also filed suit.

*This post has been updated with more information from Conrail.


  • Paul E. Wulterkens

    Increased numbers of oil trains has led dispatchers to pressure company inspectors to ease off, to become less disruptive. But keeping the trains upright is the key to the whole oil train problem. Half of derailments are due to track defects, a quarter stem from human error, and a quarter arise out of equipment, system and maintenance failures.

    The federal inspectors are few and far between, able to inspect only 1% of the track. The company inspectors are the real guardians.

    The FRA decrees how often the rails must be inspected but does not tell the inspectors how long to take. Increased demand to move that crude puts pressure on the inspectors to hurry it up, to get out of the way.

    Inspectors are pushing the FRA to demand more inspections, more often, more by ultrasound, faster attention to the defects that are identified, and more work crews to help the inspectors.

    Too in bed with the railroads, the FRA has refused the inspectors’ urgings.

    Remind the FRA that they work for you. Sign the petition for strict regulation at

  • skeeteril

    These scared people who live their lives as if everything is out there to destroy them, are sad folks. Worse yet, they yell about possibilities that don’t concern them. It is you people that we normal folks consider zombies. You “lives” are dead and you need protection from the government.

    Normal people realize that sometimes things happen and we do not need to place someone immediately at blame, especially if it is something called….an accident.

  • Jesus Buzzard

    So 188 came to rest 100 feet from what could be empty tankers. Great story.

  • Daniel Pearson

    It does not have to be equipment failure or the tracks. If you pay attention this was in curve that was to ran at 50 mph not 106 mph. So the engineer was not paying attention, maybe texting or had been using drugs. He was in a high paid job and maybe got there through who he new. As he ran that route many times he knew that curve was there The physics will allow the train to go trough that curve that fast as the cars are very tall. They are not stupid sports cars..

  • LynxAlexiaBlack

    As far as what’s in any tanker or truck on the road for that matter, if it’s remotely dangerous then there will be a Placard on the car and it’s required to be visible from all four sides. Any one with access to a simple app from the NIH can look up what the Placard is identifying the contents as being. I used to run with volunteer Fire Departments and we were all trained on how to identify a hazmat using these placards and a book of what to do. It’s not a big secret.

    • Susan Phillips

      It’s true you can look up information if you’re close enough to see the hazmat sign, which is a red triangle. But reporters could not get close enough.

      • LynxAlexiaBlack

        Actually no the placards are diamond shaped and the color will is varied depending on the type of hazmat inside. You don’t have to be too close to see them and binoculars are a must prior to getting “too close” so you know what your dealing with. Point is its not secret if you know what to look for.

        • Susan Phillips

          Right, but without the placards, how would you know? Zooming in on the photos, you can not see any placards.

          • LynxAlexiaBlack

            The placards are all that’s required by law. Some times the tank cars actually have the Chemical names and the like stenciled on the sides of the cars. But in general if there isn’t a placard then the car is either empty or filled with a non-volatile non-corosive etc. substance.

          • Susan Phillips

            Which begs the question as to why they were so reluctant to say what was inside.

          • LynxAlexiaBlack

            If I had to guess it’s that they feel that if they talk about even the innocuous things then they will “have” to talk about the hazardous things. I don’t agree with the way they behave and I don’t buy their excuse. Neither have judges. There was a case in the recent years where they were forced to divulge the contents of the trains and when they would be going through a particular town. I think, if I’m remembering it correctly, the town’s EMA officer wanted the information so they could plan accordingly and they were denied even on those grounds so the town sued and won. I don’t know how far ranging the results were though.

          • LynxAlexiaBlack
          • Susan Phillips

            That emergency order requires disclosure of the routes of unit trains carrying more than one million gallons of crude oil. The trains in the photos, and in the Frankford yard, were not unit trains of more than 35 cars. So, theoretically, the cars could have had oil without the public or emergency planners having knowledge of it.

          • LynxAlexiaBlack

            True and in fact there were watchdog groups that pointed out the very real fact that the companies did indeed start to ship smaller train loads simply more often just to get around the rule. All the while they are still lobbying hard to have the rule revoked. Their only real justification on the disclosure black out is to avoid vandalism… That’s weak to me.

          • LynxAlexiaBlack
  • Flash 1005

    This is why rail companies must be required to carry full and adequate insurance.

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