Citizens group launches campaign for safer railroads

Gayle Bonneville near the Northtown Rail Yard in Northeast Minneapolis. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Risky Rails — a special Journals’ report examining oil train safety. Find more stories at southwestjournal.com/risky-rails.

Rail yards can be challenging neighbors.

Gayle Bonneville, a resident of Waite Park in Northeast Minneapolis, knows this firsthand. She lives near Shoreham Yards and has been coping with life near trains for years.

She has served on an a citizen’s advisory group working on redevelopment ideas for the rail yard’s historic Roundhouse and is one of the organizers of a new group devoted to protecting communities near rail lines — Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS) Twin Cities.

The group has mobilized a campaign to ensure the safety of neighborhoods impacted by the rail transport of Bakken oil and other dangerous materials. Bonneville said the concerns about rail cargo go beyond the highly flammable Bakken oil.

“It’s not just the oil. It’s chlorine. It’s ethanol. It’s anhydrous ammonia — all can be deadly, flammable and very dangerous. Sometimes you stay in your house. Sometimes you’re supposed to get out of your house,” she said. “In theory really anything can go by our houses and through Shoreham Yards, and not only go through, but be stored at Shoreham Yards. It sits there, and that’s very concerning to us.”

Shoreham Yards is a 230-acre train, trucking and bulk-distribution site owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. It stretches from Central to University avenues NE and 27th Avenue to St. Anthony Parkway.

Nearby, BNSF owns the Northtown Rail Yard — the largest rail yard in the state where hundreds of trains converge every day.

Minneapolis Park Board President Liz Wielinski, who lives a block and a half from the Northtown Yard, has also tuned into the work of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety. She said the increased rail shipments has also led to more congestion in Northeast. “It really backs up traffic,” she said.

Cathy Velasquez Eberhart, one of the founders of CARS-Twin Cities, said the group was modeled after Citizens for Rail Safety in La Crosse, Wis., which has been advocating for an environmental impact statement for the entire Upper Mississippi Rail Corridor as a way to ensure that railroad policies are strong enough to protect residents along the rail and the river from possible derailments or spills.

“Cities, towns and environmentally sensitive areas in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois have quickly become a major industrial rail transportation corridor and an under-regulated ‘pipeline on wheels,’” CARS-La Crosse members wrote on their website. “Projects in the region will further increase traffic and the threat to the health and safety of citizens and the environment throughout.”

Velasquez Eberhart’s home in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul is surrounded by train tracks.

She said her neighborhood has become increasingly concerned about the Bakken oil trains that cut through the area as more derailments are reported across the country.

“As people were reading about these explosions, people were walking up to it and really scared,” she said. “People are terrified about it.”

She said she hopes the CARS-Twin Cities group can help educate people about rail safety issues.

“My first primary motivation in doing this was to create a space where people could take their fears, frustrations and worries and work together with other people to take some action,” she said.

The group has been active at community meetings, recently held a presentation on oil trains at the Red Stag in Northeast and is lobbying leaders at all levels of government to make oil train cars safer and explore the possibility of rerouting trains from densely populated areas.

CARS-Twin Cities is also organizing neighborhood listening sessions for residents interested in learning more about rail issues.

David Riehle, a retired railroad engineer who operated trains for 31 years, is another active member of the local CARS group.

He said he is perplexed about the frequency of derailments and said if the accidents continue, the railroad companies should reroute around population centers and shippers need to invest in new rail cars with thicker walls to make it safer.

Riehle suggested a number of factors could be behind the derailments, including overloading cars at the wells in North Dakota and erosion issues along tracks near rivers. Speeds should also be reduced to prevent accidents, he said.

BNSF recently announced plans to reduce oil train speeds to 35 mph through all cities with 100,000 or more people.

“The only solution is to spend more money and make these operations safe,” Riehle said.

Kathy Hollander, a volunteer for MN350, a group advocating for climate change solutions, is also involved in CARS-Twin Cities. She’s been tracking legislation at the state Capitol related to oil train safety. 

She said citizen engagement on the issue is key to moving ahead on new safety measures.

“Citizen involvement is absolutely critical,” she said. “Citizens can turn the unthinkable to the possible. … Things can happen if the citizens can get involved.” 

 

FYI …
Citizens Acting for Rail Safety–Twin Cities is holding an informational meeting on rail issues Monday, April 13, 7–9 p.m., at Prospect Park United Methodist Church, 22 Orlin Ave. SE. To learn more about Citizens Acting for Rail Safety–Twin Cities, go to www.Facebook.com/saferailstwincities.