Deadly Crossings: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains

New Investigative Report Documents Nation’s Neglected Rail Infrastructure

Waterkeepers from across the country identify significant areas of concern with 114 railway bridges along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains

NEW YORK, NY AND SAN FRANCISCO, CA – November 10, 2015 – Upper Missouri Waterkeeper
joined Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics and a national network of Waterkeeper organizations today in releasing a new investigative report – Deadly Crossings: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains – exploring the condition of our nation’s rail infrastructure. From July – September 2015, Waterkeepers from across the country documented the structural integrity of 250 railway bridges along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains, capturing the state of this often neglected infrastructure in their communities.

The Waterkeepers identified areas of concern with 114 bridges, nearly half of those observed. Photos and video footage of the bridges inspected show signs of significant stress and decay, such as rotted, cracked, or crumbling foundations, and loose or broken beams. Waterkeepers were also present when crude oil unit trains passed and observed flexing, slumping and vibrations that crumbled concrete.

In Montana Upper Missouri Waterkeeper surveyed 17 oil train bridges crossing key waterways like the Yellowstone River in the SE, the Milk and Marias Rivers in North-Central Montana, the Missouri and Gallatin Rivers in SW Montana, and the Clark Fork in W. Montana.

This investigation was initiated out of concern for the threat posed by the 5,000 percent increase in oil train traffic since 2008. Oil train traffic increases both the strain on rail infrastructure, as well as the likelihood of a rail bridge defect leading to an oil train disaster resulting in oil spills, fires and explosions. Indeed, the threat bomb trains pose to Montana communities was also recently confirmed in a Montana Legislative Audit Division report, released October 28, 2015, which found that not only is oil train traffic increasing across the state, but the state has no active rail safety plan and employs only two inspectors, statewide, to inspect Montana’s vast rail infrastructure.

A review of safety standards for rail bridges revealed that the federal government cedes authority and oversight of inspections and repairs to railway bridge owners. Overly broad federal law, lax regulations, dangerously inadequate inspections and oversight, and a lack of authority compound the threat from oil trains. The 2008 federal law and subsequent DOT standards regulating safety of rail bridges leaves responsibility for determining load limits, safety inspections, and maintenance with rail bridge owners.

The groups are calling for immediate, decisive action by the federal government on this issue. “What the Waterkeepers have captured shines a light on the need for immediate, independent inspections of all rail bridges that carry explosive oil trains,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “People deserve to know the state of this infrastructure and the risks posed by oil trains rolling through their communities.”

ForestEthics has calculated that oil trains directly threaten the life and safety of 25 million Americans living inside the blast zone, which is the one mile evacuation zone in the case of an oil train fire. The drinking water supplies for tens of millions more are also at risk. This report attempts to alert communities about this risk, and calls for nationwide action and reform of rail safety standards.

“One out of five Montanans live within an oil train derailment evacuation zone, and rail lines cross nearly every major waterway in our state,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “With the recent Yellowstone oil spill fresh in Montanan’s minds, our decisionmakers need to take immediate action to address the issue of crumbling rail infrastructure used so heavily by bomb trains; protecting Montana communities and our clean water needs to be a top priority.”

Train TimelineFACTS

  • Since 2008 the oil and rail industry has increased oil train traffic by more than 5,000 percent.

    ●  This increase means an increased threat of train derailments that can result in oil spills, massive fires,

    and even explosions.

    ●  The DOT predicts that we will see an average of 10 oil train accidents per year for the next 2 decades;

    2015 has already seen 5 major oil train derailments and explosions.

    ●  Oil trains directly threaten the life and safety of 25 million Americans living inside the one­mile blast zone, and the drinking water supplies of tens of millions more.


  • There are massive gaps and loopholes in regulations regarding rail bridge safety.
  • There are more than 100,000 rail bridges nationwide.
  • Federal railway safety policy fails to address the severe increase in threat from oil trains.
  • Current law provides no standards for rail bridge design or maintenance, and leaves most of the inspection responsibility to the rail bridge owners.
  • Engineers hired by the rail bridge owners make the final decisions on all loading limits, inspections reports, safety conclusions, and develop all bridge maintenance and repair plans.
  • Regulations make it difficult for the FRA to find evidence of violations by rail companies and bring a enforcement action.
  • The FRA has recognized that the safety of railroad bridges is an issue and a growing concern, but only has requested the railroad companies to be more transparent in their maintenance of rail bridges, which the railroads have largely ignored.


  • In the first investigative report of its kind, 22 Waterkeepers in 15 states inspected 250 rail bridges.
  • Through these inspections, Waterkeepers found that 46% (114) of the rail bridges they looked at showed signs of deterioration noticeable with the naked eye.
  • Deterioration included cracked and crumbling concrete foundations, rotten and broken wooden beams, extreme rusting, and makeshift repairs.


  • We cannot wait to address this issue of potentially unsafe bridges. We need rigorous, independent safety inspections of all rail infrastructure carrying oil trains.
  • All oil train traffic must stop on all bridges with deficiencies that threaten safety.
  • The federal government must take immediate action to prevent another fatal oil train disaster and toprotect and empower communities threatened by oil trains, including: (1) Making rail bridge oversight more transparent and allowing local governments to take action to protect their communities; (2) Preparing emergency responders for dealing with bridge­caused derailments, including through the development of a national inventory of rail bridges.