PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Oil Trains: What is the Threat?

People have lived amongst trains for more than 200 years. Trains are by far one of the oldest and most successful vehicles of world history, delivering goods and people quickly and efficiently across the United States and beyond. 

While it is an incredible machine navigating an incredible rail system, I am often struck by a different perspective of the train, the goods they can carry, and what they represent. 

I began to wonder and really think about oil trains about two years ago, when I discovered oil trains have been running through my community. Since then, oil trains have become one of my all-time favorite talking points, and learning about them has changed my life. 

It’s funny to me now that I have been hearing the whistle of these trains in the far away distance at night since I was a kid. I grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, and oil trains have been a part of my life for years even though I didn’t know about them.

Now that I recognize oil trains—which can have more than 100 cars at one time—they are hard to miss. Just knowing the cars that they carry are filled with volatile crude oil has changed the way I see these trains. 

Seeing the black tanker cars feels like a slap in my face, and an annoyance that keeps popping up in the most unexpected places. These black, pill-shaped disasters-just-waiting-to-happen continuously show up in our neighborhoods. I no longer have to search for them; instead it feels like they are looking for me.

The presence of oil trains in my city, and in the other communities is the embodiment of intimidation. My relationship with these black tanker cars has transformed into one that feels strange and slightly personal. In my head, oil trains are the physical representation of the terms, ideas and institutions that shape our reality. When I see oil trains, I hear the tanker cars whisper, “capitalism,” ”classism,” “colonialism,” “climate change,” “industry deregulation,” and “powerlessness.” 

See, in my eyes, fractivism (anti-fracking activism), and activism around the reality of oil trains are spiritual practices. There is a subliminal message that each tanker car delivers to the communities that they travel through, and a destructive aura that each tanker car exudes. When I look at these trains and listen to their sounds, I hear them spew messages like: “This is how things are and will continue to be.” “You are powerless to change our fossil fuel economy.” “Your health and safety means nothing to the interests of industry and their beneficiaries.” “You are inferior to the systems that uphold destructive power dynamics.”

But the movement and saying, “STOP OIL TRAINS!” have become a war cry for activists like me for this very reason. Halting the use of oil trains has the potential to end a lot of the negative things that travel with them. It can end community members having to ask questions like: “What is in these tanker cars?” or “Where are these trains coming from?” 

And ultimately, if we stop oil trains, it can end community members having to ask, “What will happen if one of these trains derails?”

I am currently attending school in Kutztown, Pa. and I still see oil trains traveling through a nearby town named Topton. I haven’t heard anyone in this area speak up against oil trains, which feels similar to my experience living in Southwest Philly, and even how I feel now living in Southeast Delaware County (where I have also seen many oil trains passing through). 

One consistent observation that I’ve had in all of these communities is that the people most impacted and most vulnerable to an oil trains disaster know little to nothing about the existence of them. And that is by far the most frustrating (and motivating) part of this work.

Whenever I travel or move I find oil trains and community members who don’t yet know the danger traveling with those tanker cars. 

We must inform the people who don’t know about the presence and dangers of oil trains and get them involved in standing up for their communities. If we can take that first step together, and if everyone living in a neighborhood next to these oil train routes can also see the reality of oil trains that I see (as a slap in the face to all communities with a right to a safe environment), then I believe that we can begin to make a bigger push to move away from reckless fracking and fossil fuel transportation.

Please join us in Philadelphia this Thursday, July 13 for a special premiere of an oil trains documentary, featuring Jeremy and his work. Click here for more details.


Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up