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Crude oil has long been transported by rail, but volume has spiked significantly in recent years, driven in large measure by increased shale production through hydraulic fracturing. Last year, railroads moved 234,000 carloads of crude oil through the U.S., up from 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.
A single carload is equivalent to 600 to 700 barrels of oil.
The trend is accelerating, with shipments up 166 percent during the first quarter of 2013 over the same period last year, according to the rail association.
While specific figures for Illinois were not available, the state is a major freight hub, and sources say that local oil traffic has increased as carloads of crude are shipped to refineries on the Gulf Coast and to other destinations.
The largest freight lines in Illinois belong to Union Pacific, Canadian National and BNSF Railway, according to the rail association.
Canadian National said it moved 30,000 carloads of crude oil in 2012, up from 5,000 carloads the previous year. That volume is expected to double in 2013.
Much of that crude oil passes through Chicago or its suburbs on its way to the Gulf Coast, according to CN.
"On CN's network, if you're moving out of Canada into the United States and the Gulf Coast, that product would move through Illinois and the Chicago area," said CN spokesman Patrick Waldron.
Last year, the Union Pacific saw a threefold increase in crude oil shipments from the Bakken, Permian and Eagle Ford shale formations to refineries on the Gulf Coast, but the primary route does not pass through Illinois, according to a company spokesman.
A BNSF spokesman declined to say if the railway was moving oil through Illinois.
"For safety and security reasons, information about what specific routes hazmat is moved on and in what volumes is shared with emergency responders only," said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams.
The rail association touts the strong safety record of transporting oil by rail, citing 129 incidents between 2002 and 2012, versus 1,849 pipeline spills over the same period. But that is of little comfort to some along Chicago's "pipeline on rails."
Karen Darch, Barrington village president, led a coalition of suburbs opposed to CN's 2009 acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, a 198-mile freight line looping Chicago. She said some 16 freight trains per day are now running through Barrington, making the Quebec disaster hit close to home in the northwest suburb.
"It's certainly got to give everybody pause and something to think about," Darch said. "If rail lines carrying this kind of oil are going through densely populated communities, this could happen again."
This article first appeared on www.chicagotribune.com
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