How to Track Dirty Fossil Fuel Trains

Friendly Indians Watching A Wagon Train (print by Oscar E Berninghaus)

When European emigrants expanded westward across North America, they were displacing the native population. There were conflicts, and there were fatalities. But there were also many natives who stayed peaceful, and just watched. Eventually, they were all uprooted and re-settled.

Today, there is a new expansion that pits the fossil fuel industry against not just local people, but also the health of our planet. Many of us are increasingly concerned about the climate change implications of a fossil fuel consumption habit that just keeps growing, like an addiction. We watch while large areas are strip-mined or fracked or leveled, all to extract tar sands, crude oil, and coal. These fossil fuels are so dirty that we do not want them used in our country … so we let corporations ship them overseas, blindly ignoring that we all share one planet. Their atmosphere is our atmosphere; increased emissions in Asia decrease air quality in North America, just as changes in South America will impact Africa. Even more ironically, in many cases, our government is enabling the extraction of these dirty fossil fuels from our public lands, collecting meager royalties while fueling large corporate profits.

Sadly, governmental regulatory agencies have become increasingly ‘in the pocket’ of those they are supposed to regulate. Thus, when concerned citizens seek information, they generally do not get quick and reliable data about movements of these fossil fuels. But these fossil fuels are being moved, and much of this is happening via the railroads. Trains are large, and the population is everywhere, so if we choose to, we can track these train movements, share that information online, and acquire some factual data with which to fight the expansion.

Trainspotting: We can ‘Crowd-Source’ Dirty Fossil Fuel Information

Instead of just watching, we can become involved. Some trains are mixed with a variety of flat cars, boxcars, etc., but some, called ‘Unit Trains’, are almost entirely composed of just coal cars or tank cars. Tanks are routinely placarded, and most commonly a crude oil should have a placard with the number [1267] (though, related product codes may be seen, such as [1863] for aviation fuel, or [1993] for diesel fuel or a ‘combustible liquid’). It takes very little effort for a person to jot down a few notes and share them online. If you see a fossil fuel unit train, just record the date, time, location, direction, and a brief description, then share it online. So, you might share this short note: “4/23/14, at 6:20PDT, a train with roughly 90 tank cars, northbound through Kalama, WA; the few placards read were all [1267].” Maybe even attach a quick photo with your cellphone. This and other observations can then be studied and we can quickly establish the patterns, frequencies and other data for fossil fuel shipments via rail.

Crude Oil Trains

A ‘Unit Train’ typically has three locomotives at the front, then a boxcar, a long string of tank cars (commonly 80-120 cars), and often a single locomotive at the rear. If you want to be really detailed, you can copy (or photograph) individual tank car numbers. Each tank car has a ‘Reporting Mark’, as well as a car number; thus, this small photo clip identifies a ‘CBTX’ tank car, with the unique numerical identifier ‘735400’. The most commonly used tank car is a design called the DoT-111, which commonly carries between 28,000 and 30,000 gallons of crude oil. For the past two decades, there has been increasing concern about the tendency of these tank cars to rupture — sometimes explosively — in accidents. The potential for explosions has increased in recent years, as more tar sands and fracked products are being shipped. This is due to added diluents (e.g., benzene), and/or larger concentrations of problem gasses, such as H2S. Many of these gases more volatile and/or more dangerous to human health. So, there is increasing pressure to upgrade rail tank cars, replacing them with improved tank care designs, such as the DoT-112 or DoT-114.

Coal Trains

The largest volumes of U.S. coal are shipped out of New Orleans and Norfolk, VA., with the largest markets being the UK and Netherlands. In the Pacific Northwest, a moderate amount is shipped out of Seattle, with the vast majority destined to Taiwan and South Korea. There is a lot of pressure to expand exports to Asia, especially to China, and new coal port proposals are being considered in both Oregon and Washington. Railroad coal is commonly shipped in an open hopper car, with no top, thus spreading coal dust. A typical coal car is 53′ long and hauls 120 tons of coal. Coal export data is viewable via an online Coal Data Browser at The website shows a map, and you can click on ports on the map to pull up data for export amounts and destinations.

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