Tag Archives: Twin Cities MN

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

Repost from The Star Tribune, Minneapolis MN

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

By Jim Spencer, March 21, 2015 – 8:22 PM

Industry says reinforced cars on current routes are better than trying to avoid heavily populated areas.

A train carried Bakken oil past St. Paul. Federal rules say a single tanker car spill and fire would require a half-mile evacuation. Photo: Star Tribune

WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken asked the Federal Railroad Administration to consider rerouting trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota so they do not pass through Minnesota’s biggest cities.

For Franken, the possibility of rerouting is an integral part of a comprehensive response to a recent rash of fiery oil train derailments that also includes stabilizing Bakken crude before it is loaded into stronger tanker cars.

For the nation’s powerful railroad lobby, however, rerouting is an unwarranted intrusion into a rail safety system that the industry says works.

Government-ordered rerouting of private rail traffic is not exactly a snowball in hell. It is more like a blizzard in Bahrain — possible, but unprecedented.

In Minnesota and around the country, “rerouting issues ought to be high on everyone’s agenda,” said rail safety expert Fred Millar, who fought unsuccessfully against railroads to move chlorine trains out of the District of Columbia. “But rerouting has been pushed off the table.”

Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration in 1966. In nearly half a century it does not appear to have forced any railroads to reroute trains around big cities for safety reasons, despite computer modeling that estimates routing changes could lower citizens’ risks to hazardous materials derailments by 25 to 50 percent and reduce casualties in an actual derailment by half.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) last week estimated that 326,170 state residents live within a half-mile of rail routes that carry oil from North Dakota across Minnesota. A half-mile is the federal emergency response evacuation zone required in the event of a single tanker car spill and fire. Multiple-car fires require up to a mile evacuation.

MnDOT data shows that 156,316 of the Minnesotans subject to evacuation in an oil train derailment live in the Twin Cities metro area. Most North Dakota oil trains enter Minnesota at Moorhead, then travel on BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks into the Twin Cities before turning south along the Mississippi River and east across Wisconsin. A few oil trains travel through western Minnesota into Iowa.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board has backed rerouting in some circumstances, federal laws passed in 2007 grant private rail companies wide latitude in determining when and where trains should move, even trains carrying hazardous materials.

Canadian Pacific did not comment specifically on rerouting trains in Minnesota, but in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, the railroad said it has voluntarily complied with the federal government’s Crude by Rail Safety Initiatives and performed “route risk assessments.”

BNSF, the largest crude-by-rail hauler out of North Dakota, declined to comment on rerouting and referred questions to the rail industry’s major trade group, the Association of American Railroads.

An AAR spokesman said the industry opposes re-routing oil trains because the existing routes are the safest, even when they pass through urban areas. The industry supports more structurally secure tanker cars, track inspections and training of emergency response teams, said AAR media relations director Ed Greenberg.

BNSF also has invested heavily in track improvements to increase safety along its existing Minnesota oil train routes.

“We’re using routing technology called the Rail Corridor Risk Management System developed by the federal government,” Greenberg said. The technology measures 27 factors — including population density — to determine the safest route for moving hazardous materials, including crude oil, Greenberg said.

“Rerouting isn’t the answer,” he maintained. “All it has accomplished in the past is to force rail traffic through other communities on tracks not built to accommodate products like crude oil.”

The Federal Railroad Administration declined to discuss rerouting oil trains in Minnesota. In an e-mail statement, acting administrator Sarah Feinberg said of Franken’s request: “Over the past 18 months we have taken more than a dozen actions to enhance the safe transport of crude oil while working on a comprehensive rule that is now in its final stages of development.”

The state has little say in the rerouting debate. “The railroads are regulated by the federal government,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said. “The state does not have the authority to move, or reroute, rail lines.”

Rerouting trains away from the Twin Cities is not part of a rail safety initiative unveiled March 13 by Gov. Mark Dayton. That proposal calls for spending $330 million over 10 years, much of it in greater Minnesota, mainly to make road-rail crossings safer and to improve emergency response.

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