Having worked at a few pipeline companies, I know they take safety and spills very seriously but we see pipeline bursts and their resulting spills with frequency in the news so the question lingers: Are pipelines safe?

pipeline-vs-rail-environmentLet’s start by stating an obvious fact that no-one WANTS a pipeline or any other serious infrastructure (power lines, rail lines, highways…) in their back yard but without such infrastructure our modern world would grind to a halt.  If we can agree on that as a fact, and not an opinion, we can rationally consider pipeline safety.

The factors determining the safety of any pipeline compared to rail or trucking are also obvious and visually undeniable.  Below is a simple chart outlining some of the risk factors that go into transporting liquids and gases:


FactorPipelinePipe ScoreTrainTrain Score
Above/Below GroundBurried1Above Ground8
VisibilityVery Low1Very High8
Human Error LikelihoodNearly Zero1Constant6
Intentional Damage LikelihoodVery Low1Moderate5
Easy of Stopping LeakVery Easy1Very Difficult6
VolumeVery High9Low3
24 Hr MonitoringExcellent1Minimal8
16 52

The score we have assigned is clearly a subjective rating rather than hard fact so you can argue any of those number are wrong.  However the intent of the scoring is to provide a relative measure and not an absolute measure.  In other words, we hope that you agree it is fact that a buried pipeline is obviously many times less likely to be intentionally damaged than a surface rail system.

Those numbers provide us with an estimate that pipelines should be about 4 times safer than rail and it turns out that hard core research into the matter shows that in the real world, pipelines are about 4.5 times safer.

…Using data from government sources, whether pipelines or rail were safer for transporting oil and gas. The study focused on the number of occurrences or accidents per million barrels of oil and gas transported.

The result was clear. Both rail and pipelines are quite safe, but pipelines are without a doubt the safest way to transport oil and gas.

In every year from 2003 to 2013, pipelines experienced fewer occurrences per million barrels of oil equivalent transported than did rail. Overall in this period, rail experienced 0.227 occurrences per million barrels of oil equivalent transported compared to 0.049 for pipelines.

This means that rail is more than 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence.

Source: fraserinstitute.org/article/pipelines-are-safest-way-transport-oil-and-gas


A rail tank car carries about 30,000 gallons (÷ 42 gallons/barrel = about 700 barrels). A train of 100 cars carries about 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) and takes over 3 days to travel from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, about a million gallons per day. The Keystone will carry about 35 million gallons per day (830,000 barrels). This puts pressure on rail transport to get bigger and bigger, and include more cars per train, the very reason that crude oil train wrecks have dramatically increased lately.

Source: forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/04/26/pick-your-poison-for-crude-pipeline-rail-truck-or-boat

Note that when we decided to grind out the above table of risk factors and scores that we did NOT have the real safety numbers so while it may appear that the math was “cooked” for this article, I can assure you it was not.

You might then think that if pipelines have fewer accidents that they are more severe than rail so pipelines are still bad, however the reality has been quite the opposite:

The vast majority of pipeline occurrences—more than 80 per cent—also don’t occur in the actual line pipe. Rather they happen in facilities that are more likely to have secondary containment mechanisms and procedures.

But perhaps the most telling statistic regarding pipeline safety is that 99 per cent of pipeline occurrences from 2003 to 2013 didn’t damage the environment.

Source: fraserinstitute.org/article/pipelines-are-safest-way-transport-oil-and-gas


Among oil pipeline workers, the rate hospitalization was 30 times lower compared to rail workers involved in transporting oil, and 37 times lower than for road transport, between 2005 and 2009, the latest period for which complete data exists (Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil).

Source: forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/04/26/pick-your-poison-for-crude-pipeline-rail-truck-or-boat


The Quebec train wreck last year killed 47 people and spilled 1.5 million gallons of crude onto land (Bloomberg.com). The Enbridge pipeline rupture in 2010 spilled over a million gallons of similar crude into the Kalamazoo River but did not kill anyone (Wikipedia).

Source: forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/04/26/pick-your-poison-for-crude-pipeline-rail-truck-or-boat

In addition to the quantifiable fact the pipelines are safer the rail are the soft issues surrounding pipelines and rail lines like that fact that pipelines are nearly always buried and result in safe, clean green space “linear parks” in urban spaces where as trains tracks are a dangerous blight on the landscape.

For more in this series see:

You may also find these three videos interesting.

Please note that we have received NO funding or from any parties related to this article.  We are trying to be as factual as possible with emotional, Partisan Issues.


Richard A. Hamby · February 16, 2021 at 6:46 am

Wondering if there is similar info on PIPELINE vs. TRUCKING transport of oil…

    Ian Matthews · February 16, 2021 at 2:16 pm

    Hi Richard;

    That is a good question and while I do not have ready access to the numbers, I know I have seen them before and the math looked something like:

    Pipelines ~3 x safer than trains
    Pipelines ~6 x safer than transport trucks

    I hope that helps.

    Thanks for checking in with us!

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