Freight rail safety overshadows committee’s light rail vote

A resolution seeks cooperation from Kenilworth Corridor railroad operator TC&W

Cyclists on the Cedar Lake Trail, which runs parallel to freight rail tracks in the Kenilworth Corridor. Credit: File photo

Freight rail safety concerns overshadowed a City Council committee hearing Tuesday on the Southwest Light Rail Transit Project.

Just three out of five Transit and Public Works Committee members voted to approve preliminary design plans for the $1.7-billion, Metropolitan Council-led transit project. But the members were unanimous in their support of a second resolution, one that Chair Kevin Reich (Ward 1) said addressed “grave concerns” about commuter-filled light rail trains running within feet of freight trains hauling ethanol and other hazardous materials.

The resolution calls on the city to request emergency response and spill prevention plans from Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company, whose trains operate along the future path of light rail in Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor, a narrow passage that threads between lakes and neighborhoods. It states that the company has “opposed public disclosure” of those plans in the past.

The resolution also seeks a public process to address neighbors’ concerns about rail traffic; public disclosure of freight routing plans during light rail construction; and a report to the city on its liability in the case of a spill, fire or explosion. From the Met Council, the resolution seeks a report on similar instances of freight and light rail co-location elsewhere in the country; inclusion of a hazardous materials response plan in the project’s final environmental impact statement; and a discussion with the city on how the agency will help to ensure TC&W cooperates.

Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13), who co-authored the resolution with Reich and Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10), said the full council planned to consider a similar but broader resolution in October that would address rail safety concerns citywide.

Palmisano, Bender and Reich were also the three “yes” votes on the question of SWLRT’s preliminary design. Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) voted against, while Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5) abstained.

It’s now up to the full City Council to take up the question of local approval for SWLRT, also known as municipal consent. Minneapolis and other cities along the route already gave their OK last year, but the Met Council initiated a second round of municipal consent after project leaders cut the budget back from nearly $2 billion with a series of design alterations this summer.

The two votes followed a roughly 90-minute public hearing in which testimony in favor of 14.5-mile light rail connection between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie was vastly outweighed by safety concerns and a palpable disgust at the public process that will likely bring light rail to the Kenilworth Corridor. Kenwood resident Sarai Brenner said she was made “cynical” by experience, and described the co-location agreement Met Council reached with the city during mediation last year as a “dirty backroom deal.”

“I feel like our system has failed my constituents,” City Council Member Lisa Goodman said, echoing Brenner’s comments and sparking an outburst of applause from supporters in the City Council chambers. The Kenilworth Corridor is located within Goodman’s Ward 7.

In May, construction on an apartment project near the corridor was halted when it was discovered sheet piling had damaged nearby homes. Goodman predicted those same issues would come up again when a similar technique is used to construct a tunnel for light rail trains through the south end of the Kenilworth Corridor.

Goodman said the City Council was unwilling to stand up to the Met Council, describing a vote to approve the line as a foregone conclusion.

“I know the fix is in,” she said. “I know where the votes are.”

Seeking assurances

Reached by phone the day after the meeting, Twin Cities & Western President Mark Wegner said his company filed emergency response plans with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in June, as is required of all railroads operating so-called “unit trains” of 25 or more tanker cars of oil or other hazardous substances. TC&W doesn’t haul oil, but it does transport ethanol through the Kenilworth Corridor.

Wegner said sharing the details of the plans publicly could pose a security threat.

“We’re entirely in favor of the emergency response community having access to them. That’s entirely appropriate,” he said. “We just don’t want to give a terrorist a roadmap to cause terror, that’s all.”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL–61A) called that argument “absurd,” questioning what use a terrorist would have with a plan that might detail, for instance, how many booms would be use to contain a spill in water.

“All we’re asking for is some assurance that they have a plan to clean up a spill and to respond to an explosion,” Hornstein said, adding that only two of five railroads operating in Minnesota made the documents public, and then only in redacted versions. TC&W was not one of those two.

“This is a company that is operating in secret and is not accountable,” he said.

Reich said Minneapolis first responders participate in joint-training exercises with the railroads and that some information is shared to create a “baseline set of understanding” ahead of any emergency response. But there may also be room to improve “day-to-day” communications with the city’s three major rail operators, he said.

Reich also suggested “limited but appropriate information” about disaster response plans could be made public through Minneapolis public safety officials without compromising security.

“I think we could find a reasonable area of exchange of information that doesn’t exist today,” he said.

Question of liability

Responding to the question of liability in the case of a disaster, Wegner acknowledged the issue was being discussed across the industry in the aftermath of a July 2013 oil train derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway filed for bankruptcy in both the U.S. and Canada following the disaster and was sold in 2014.

Wegner said it’s “become a federal issue” that likely would require a solution from Congress.

“Really, I don’t think you could buy the level of insurance that would be needed if you had a catastrophic event,” he said.

Wegner noted TC&W operates at 10 mph in the Kenilworth Corridor, well below the 25-mph speed limit.

“Even if we did derail, at 10 mph the cars are going to be staying upright,” he said.

Hornstein said he’d push TC&W to reroute trains hauling hazardous substances at least during light rail construction. But the railroad is resistant. Wegner described the available detour on tracks in western Minnesota as “like going from Minneapolis to St. Paul via Duluth every day.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Met Council planned to study and report on other instances of freight and light rail co-location. Two days after the hearing, an agency spokesperson wrote in an email that the resolution was still under review by the Southwest Project Office.

Hennepin County and the five cities along the line have until Oct. 11 to complete municipal consent proceedings. As of mid-September, the city councils of Minnetonka, Eden Praire and Hopkins had all voted to approve.

The full Minneapolis City Council is expected to vote on municipal consent Sept. 25.