Tag Archives: Minnesota Department of Transportation

From Washington state to D.C., fears of oil train risks on rise

Repost from The Missoulian
[Editor:  An interesting summary of recent developments on crude by rail safety.  – RS]

From Washington state to D.C., fears of oil train risks on rise

By Kim Briggeman, March 28, 2015 6:00 pm
Illinois oil train derailment involved safer tank cars
Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of a train derailment Thursday, March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed around 1:20 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, said Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Moser. (AP Photo/Telegraph Herald, Jessica Reilly)

Exploding oil trains are a hot topic in the United States and Canada, spurred by a recent spate of accidents and a prediction by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year that there are many more to come – 10 a year over the next two decades.

The oil boom in North Dakota and insufficient pipeline capacity have put a record number of cars hauling crude on the tracks, each capable of carrying more than 30,000 gallons of highly combustible oil when fully loaded. For a 100-car train that’s 3 million gallons.

A sampling of recent developments:

• An association of Washington Fire Chiefs requested Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway provide worst-case scenarios for potential crude oil train emergencies in selected areas of the state. They also want to see evidence of the levels of catastrophic insurance the railroad has purchased; comprehensive emergency response plans for specific locations in the state; and route analysis documentation and route selection results.

“Normally, we would be able to assess the hazard through right-to-know and other public documents,” a letter to BNSF said. “However, your industry has sought and gained exemptions to these sunshine laws. This exemption does not mean that your industry is exempt from taking reasonable steps to ensure catastrophic incidents do not occur.”

• Seattle vendors and former Mayor Mike McGinn joined forces at a news conference March 20 to highlight the potential destruction from an explosive oil train accident under Pike Place Market. The BNSF tunnel that runs under downtown Seattle passes under a corner of the market. An accident threatens the safety of 10 million annual visitors and the iconic market itself, the vendors said.

BNSF said it’s going to great lengths to make the tunnel safer, including spending $10 million in recent years to replace the tracks.

McGinn called the railway’s assurances “absolutely not sufficient for safety.”

• Four Democratic senators introduced an act Wednesday that would immediately bar the use of older, riskier tankers and set standards for volatility of gases in tank cars so they don’t explode as easily. The Crude-By-Rule Safety Act would set standards for new tankers that require thicker shells, thermal protection and pressure relief valves.

“Every new derailment increases the urgency with which we need to act,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said. “Communities in Washington state and across the nation see hundreds of these oil tank cars pass through each week. This legislation will help reduce the risk of explosion in accidents, take unsafe tank cars off the tracks, and ensure first responders have the equipment they need.”

• The American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads announced at a teleconference Wednesday they will jointly fund additional training for local first responders along railroad tracks to deal with crude shipment accidents.

There are initial plans for sessions in 15 states, beginning this weekend in Nebraska and Florida. The AAR last year dedicated more than $5 million to training at its Security and Emergency Response Training Center near Pueblo, Colorado.

• Noting that a fiery oil train wreck in downtown Spokane could lead to the evacuation of 20,000 people, city officials requested and on Thursday were granted a seat at the table in discussions to open an oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington.

BNSF supports the terminal and said it’s “more than prepared” to handle the increased loads through northern Montana, Idaho and Washington.

“Our northern route is perfectly positioned geographically as we run through the Bakken region and to the Northwest destination points,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told the Spokesman-Review’s Nicholas Deshais in early March.

Jerry White, leader of the Spokane Riverkeeper, was not convinced. He referred to the fiery Feb. 16 of a BNSF train in West Virginia.

“When I was watching that disaster, something struck me,” White told Deshais. “The fire chief in that little town said they were just backing off and letting that oil burn. I projected that onto Spokane. Can you imagine this happening in the downtown corridor and the fire crews saying the only thing we can do is back off and let them burn?”

• A state official warned Minnesotans living along tracks carrying North Dakota crude oil to prepare themselves for an emergency.

“People need to take some personal awareness of what’s around them,” Kevin Reed of the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division told Don Davis of the Forum News Service. “How do I get out of the way before the fire department gets here?”

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that 326,170 Minnesotans live within half a mile of railroad tracks with trains carrying Bakken oil. A state report indicated an average of 6.3 oil trains a day cross Minnesota.

Gov. Mark Dayton said those numbers highlight the need for safety improvements on the railroads.

“It just underscores the risk factor and why it’s imperative that we do everything we possibly can to prevent these derailments and the catastrophes that can result from them,” Dayton said.

• The U.S. Department of Energy is studying crude volatility and whether it should be treated to remove dissolved gases before transport, an official testified Wednesday at a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked why the more volatile crude transported from the Bakken couldn’t be stabilized before being loaded into tank cars in the same way crude from Texas is stabilized.

Timothy Butters, acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said that’s what the study seeks to determine. Results should be in by fall.

Minnesota towns talking about dangerous rail crossings

Repost from DL-Online, Detroit Lakes, MN
[Editor:  The Minnesota Dept. of Transportation’s study of rail crossings and bridges identified and prioritized safety upgrades all over the state, and now has towns large and small reflecting on the bomb train threats in their midst.  This is the story from one such town, Detroit Lakes, population around 8500.  A similar study here in California would go far to wake up communities all along the rails.  – RS]

 Detroit Lakes in the Bakken oil danger zone

By DL News Staff, Jan 17, 2015

Forty to 44 trainloads a week of highly volatile Bakken crude oil come through Detroit Lakes via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail corridor, each one a potential inferno if it derails and explodes.

Train collisions with trucks and cars often cause derailments, so making crossings safer is key to preventing a disaster such as the one that killed 47 people when a parked train rolled downhill and derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013.

That’s why the Minnesota Department of Transportation assessed all rail crossings on routes that carry Bakken oil, and prioritized the potential danger and need for improvements at each one.

The bad news is that the Washington Avenue crossing is the third highest priority crossing in the state, based on population living within a half-mile of the crossing, the number and type of vehicles that use the crossing, the accident history there, and its proximity to emergency services such as the fire hall, police station and hospital, among other factors.

The good news is that the crossing has gates and medians and is already considered as safe as a crossing can be, so no additional improvements are recommended.

When the city implemented a “no-train-horn” policy on the BNSF corridor a few years ago, it was required to implement top-of-the-line safety improvements at the crossings.

Compare that to the Sixth Street N.W.  crossing in Perham, which is the second-highest priority crossing in the state. It has gates, but the state is recommending a grade separation (an underpass or an overpass) be built at that site in the long term.

Same goes for the No. 1 priority crossing in the state, the 14th Street S. crossing in Benson. It has gates and cants, but grade separation is recommended.

In Detroit Lakes, the crossings at County Road 54 (the Hidden Hills Road) and the Brandy Lake crossing near Walmart did not make the list of priority crossings.

Both were improved earlier as part of the “whistle-free zone” initiative.

The Canadian Pacific crossing on Legion Road near Snappy Park now has no gates at all, only crossbucks, but gates are set to be installed there in the next few years.

The Canadian Pacific route through Detroit Lakes (including WE Fest) Callaway, Ogema, and Waubun is not considered a Bakken crude route for the purposes of the state study, though trains do carry oil cars on those tracks.

The BNSF crossing on Lake Street N. in Frazee is No. 29 on the state’s list of dangerous crossings. It has gates, but the crossing is listed as “adequate, but improvable” in the state study.

The Fifth Street W. crossing in Frazee is No. 36 on the priority list and the state recommends medians be installed as part of a long-term solution.

The Fourth Street crossing in Audubon is ranked No. 57 on the priority list, but the crossing is considered adequate and no improvements are recommended.

No crossings in Lake Park made the list.

Other crossings on the priority list include several in Wadena, New York Mills, Perham, Glyndon and Dilworth.

Minnesota doesn’t have any control over the type of rail traffic that moves across state lines, but it’s encouraging that it has been as proactive as possible in identifying dangerous crossings and recommending solutions.

Study: rail crossings need safety upgrades

Repost from St. Cloud Times, St. Cloud MN
[Editor: Significant quote: “The MnDOT study recommends short-term upgrades at 10 grade crossings throughout the state. It also prioritizes more costly long-term upgrades, such as creating grade separations, at other crossings.”  IMPORTANT: The California Department of Transportation should take a few cues from Minnesota, commission a study and make similar recommendations.  See also Minnesota officials put price tag at $280M to upgrade oil train routes (MN Star-Tribune)  – RS]

Local rail crossings eyed for oil safety upgrades

Mark Sommerhauser, December 31, 2014
STC 0101 Train Crossings 1.jpg
A BNSF Railway freight train crosses East St. Germain Street as traffic waits Wednesday in St. Cloud. A study has recommended upgrading the crossing. (Photo: Kimm Anderson

Upgrades are on track for train crossings in St. Cloud and Clear Lake, part of a bid to improve safety on Minnesota’s main thoroughfares for shipping oil by rail.

The upgrades are recommended in a new Minnesota Department of Transportation study of rail lines that carry large volumes of oil freight.

As oil production in North Dakota has soared, state officials estimated eight to 13 oil trains go through Minnesota each day. State officials said Minnesota’s most heavily used rail artery for oil transport is the BNSF Railway line that goes through east St. Cloud and other area cities.

The MnDOT study recommends short-term upgrades at 10 grade crossings throughout the state. It also prioritizes more costly long-term upgrades, such as creating grade separations, at other crossings.

The study calls for medians to be installed at grade rail crossings at East St. Germain Street in St. Cloud and at Minnesota Highway 24 in Clear Lake.

The medians are meant to keep motorists from driving around lowered crossing arms. They would cost about $100,000 apiece, according to the study.

The study also calls for connecting and coordinating rail signals with traffic lights at the crossing on Sherburne County Road 11 near Big Lake. That would cost about $500,000, according to the study.

St. Cloud City Engineer Steve Foss said his office had preliminary talks with MnDOT about upgrading the East St. Germain Street crossing.

MnDOT will work with communities to finalize the study’s recommendations, according to a news release from the agency. MnDOT spokeswoman Sue Roe said the projects should move forward after that.

“They’re a ‘go,'” Roe said.

The MnDOT study stems from a 2014 state law directing the Minnesota Department of Transportation to study road crossings on rail lines carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota through Minnesota. The measure also appropriated $2 million to upgrade crossings.

About $244 million would be needed to implement the proposed grade separation projects. Those dollars aren’t currently available, Roe said.

The MnDOT news release said the study considers population, facilities and activity within a half-mile radius of each crossing. That distance represents the evacuation zone around an incident for a flammable material spill and fire.

The type of oil being transported from North Dakota, Bakken crude, has prompted particular safety concerns because of its volatility.

A string of rail disasters related to Bakken crude oil also has heightened awareness.

In July 2013, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Five months later, an oil train crashed and burned after colliding with a derailed freight train near Casselton, North Dakota.