Congress To Investigate Rail Safety

By Don Davis

The U.S. House and Senate plan separate hearings on railroad safety after a series of derailments produced a flood of safety concerns.

A Senate committee plans a Thursday hearing, while one in the House will be Feb. 26.

Trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota have been involved in a variety of incidents in recent months, most notably the Dec. 30 derailment and resulting fire along a BNSF Railway track near Casselton, N.D. In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.

Last week, a Canadian Pacific train leaked about 12,000 gallons of crude oil from Red Wing, Minn., to south of Winona, Minn., about 70 miles.

The series of incidents, and increased oil North Dakota oil production, produced cries for congressional action, including from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, both D-Minn.

“The recent derailments in North Dakota and Canada underscore the need to find commonsense ways to strengthen our rail infrastructure and protect communities near rail routes,” Klobuchar said. “This hearing will focus on ways to move forward solutions to improve rail safety and prevent future derailments.”

The Senate hearing is to focus on both passenger and freight rail safety.

Klobuchar had asked for “a comprehensive oversight hearing on the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration with a focus on the importance of freight rail safety.”

Walz said he requested a House hearing after learning of concerns from his southern Minnesota district.

“We must do everything we can to protect the communities that these hazardous materials are shipped through,” Walz said.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has said he wants railcar safety standards improved quickly, not in 2015 as the federal Transportation Department seeks.

“We do need some kind of provisional standard for the next year,” Dalrymple said. Waiting until next year “just leaves a couple of industries guessing.”

Retrofitting existing cars takes time and could cost more than $1 billion, the rail industry has said.

About 71 percent of all oil produced in North Dakota was transported by rail in November, about 800,000 barrels per day.

Local officials in Minnesota say they cannot get answers about where crude oil is being transported through their areas. However, much of the North Dakota crude is destined for refineries east of Minnesota, so quite a bit apparently moves through the state.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has begun the process of investigating whether the state needs to be more active in issues involving railroad safety.

Reuters news service contributed to this story.