Railroads play a key role in the transportation of hazardous materials in North America. Rail transport differs from highway transport in several aspects, an important one being that rail transport involves trains in which many railcars carrying hazardous materials travel together. By contrast to truck accidents, it is possible that a train accident may involve multiple hazardous materials cars derailing and releasing contents with consequently greater potential impact on human health, property and the environment. In this paper, a probabilistic model is developed to estimate the probability distribution of the number of tank cars releasing contents in a train derailment. Principal operational characteristics considered include train length, derailment speed, accident cause, position of the first car derailed, number and placement of tank cars in a train and tank car safety design. The effect of train speed, tank car safety design and tank car positions in a train were evaluated regarding the number of cars that release their contents in a derailment. This research provides insights regarding the circumstances affecting multiple-tank-car release incidents and potential strategies to reduce their occurrences. The model can be incorporated into a larger risk management framework to enable better local, regional and national safety management of hazardous materials transportation by rail.