Tracking efforts to improve rail safety

Photo courtesy Citizens Acting for Rail Safety-Twin Cities Credit:

Risky Rails — a special Journals’ report examining oil train safety. Find more stories at

An estimated 40 to 50 trains carrying the highly flammable Bakken oil pass through Minneapolis each week, according to a Minnesota Department of Transportation Freight Railroad map.

The production of Bakken shale oil has remained stable despite the drop in oil prices, said Dave Christianson, a rail planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT.)

Each oil train has about 110 tank cars with a total capacity of 3.3 million gallons of crude oil, he said.

Most of the Bakken oil trains pass through northeast Minneapolis on the BNSF rail line, but other oil trains carrying ethanol are also of concern to residents living along the Kenilworth Corridor in southwest Minneapolis.

A recent ethanol train derailment near Dubuque, Iowa sent three rail cars onto the frozen Mississippi River.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A), who has been a leader at the Capitol in addressing rail safety issues, said like the Bakken oil trains, the ethanol trains often travel with up to 100 cars.

“The issue of ethanol train safety is not hypothetical either,” he said.

There has been a huge increase in the number of oil trains passing through the state in recent years as a result of the boom in oil production from fracking in the Bakken fields of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan and extraction from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada.

MnDOT recently estimated that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of rail routes carrying oil from North Dakota — an area within the evacuation zone if a train derails.

“This data provides a greater emphasis on the need for a strong rail safety program,” said MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle. “If trains derail and an emergency occurs, many lives could be in danger.”

Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway, which owns the rail lines with the majority of oil cargo in Minnesota, said the company is proactive about safety measures.

“We provide specific details on these shipments to the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC), as well as to local first responders for planning purposes upon request,” she said. “In addition, we provide free community hazmat training to hundreds of first responders in the state each year.”

Across the country, rail shipments of oil have increased 4,000 percent over the last six years, according to ForestEthics, a nonprofit environmental group. The organization also has a map at that allows people to enter their address and see if they are within the evacuation zone in case of a derailment.

The American Association of Railroads has been pushing for a safer oil tank car, but so far shippers — the oil producers and refineries — have been resistant to paying for more expensive cars. The railroads own the tracks, but they typically don’t own the rail cars. 

The National Transportation Safety Board issued urgent recommendations April 6 for improved rail tank cars that carry flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol, including an aggressive timeline for replacing the current fleet with cars that have better thermal protection against fires.

“We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart, in a statement. “Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements, otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is also working on new rules that would require oil tank cars have thicker hulls.

Meanwhile, four Democrats in the U.S. Senate — Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Dianne Feinstein of California, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington — introduced legislation March 25 that would call for an immediate ban on DOT-111 rail tank cars, which some have dubbed the “Ford Pinto of rail cars.”

The legislation also requires disclosure of emergency response resources, sets standards for volatility of gases in oil hauled by rail, requires oil spill response plans and mandates an independent study on railroad liability insurance, among other things.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, also recently wrote a letter Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to take steps to make the rail shipment of oil safer.

In the letter, he urged high-hazard flammable trains to be rerouted to avoid population centers and require the oil to be made less volatile before it is shipped. “We also need to do more to address rail integrity issues to prevent derailments in the first place, and to give communities the resources that they need to respond to an accident with this dangerous fuel,” he wrote.

Hornstein recently met with St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson to learn how he was able to get Union Pacific to reroute oil train traffic around the city. He’s also agreed to come to the Twin Cities to meet with first responders and community leaders here to discuss oil train safety issues.

At the state Capitol this session, Hornstein, along with other DFL lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton, have been pushing for new taxes on the railroad companies to pay for safety improvements at railroad crossings.

The Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, meanwhile, has criticized the proposal for new taxes.

“For Minnesota’s 17 railroads, safety and service are top priorities,” said John Apitz, legislative counsel to the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, in a statement released March 13. “Railroads devote enormous resources to safe operations. Minnesota’s railroads will invest more than $500 million in capital improvements in Minnesota in 2015, alone.”

Apitz said the governor’s proposal would add up to $100 million a year in new taxes for the railroad industry. 

During the 2014 session, Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) spearheaded legislation that increased the number of state track inspectors from one to four; invested $2 million to improve grade crossings along train routes; assessed rail road companies $1.25 million a year for three years to train first responders along rail routes; and set deadlines for timely oil spill cleanups, among other things.

In addition to asking railroads to pay for railroad crossing improvements, there’s also legislation pending that would update statutes to make railroads liable for damages when a fire is caused by railroads. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-60), also requires railroads to reimburse local governments for expenses responding to emergency caused by railroad operations.

Other pending bills would limit the railroads’ eminent domain power and require an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed reroute of oil traffic through downtown Minneapolis. 

Hornstein, a Linden Hills resident, said he would like to see the rail companies also share more information with the public.

“There are many, many issues with transparency of the railroads and how much they are sharing with people,” he said. “We don’t have information about what they’re truly carrying. Very cursory information is given to first responders.”

Hornstein said the oil train discussion should also include an examination of the nation’s energy policy.

“First and foremost, these trains are coming through the community and they are safety issues, but we also have to look at the bigger picture as to why,” he said. “This is because we have a very backward energy policy in this country that keeps us addicted to oil.”

St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson (left) and state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A).