Communications is a key in preventing and battling oil train disasters, two U.S. senators learned Wednesday from public safety officials.
A forum convened by U.S. Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, both Democrats, produced requests for railroads to communicate better with officials and the public and to allow public safety personnel to better communicate via radio with each other.
Much of the discussion followed the lines of what Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton heard last year during a series of oil train safety meetings, centering what local officials said is the need for money to separate roads from railroads so public safety personnel are not forced to wait for trains blocking crossings.
Baldwin said it is a fiscally tough time, so communities should not expect money to flow to them for railroad crossing improvements.
But she and Franken said Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working on ways to improve railroad safety.
“We don’t want this all to depend on luck,” said Franken, after reminding the forum that North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin have avoided major injury-causing oil train derailments like have happened elsewhere.
Rail safety advocates reminded the senators that ethanol is in the same volatility class as crude oil being shipped from western North Dakota. They said many hazardous materials are shipped by rail, but oil trains carry so much that they basically are pipelines on wheels.
Franken’s staff set up the meeting with Baldwin, experts and the public at the Minneapolis Firefighters Hall and Museum, a few yards from a railroad track.
Railroad representatives were not invited to the meeting.
Franken did not wait to talk to railroads to say that he wants them to release bridge inspection reports.
“They may be companies that are looking for the biggest returns on their bucks, but they have a responsibility to the public,” Franken said. “I believe those bridge inspections should be public.”
As it is, railroads inspect their own bridges, but keep those reports secret.
Railroads also are not sharing with the public what could happen in a worst-case scenario oil train accident.
Minnesota requires railroads to file information with the state’s Pollution Control Agency, but BNSF Railway Co. blacked-out its entire plan on how to deal with a serious oil train incident, which state Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, showed to the forum.
Fire Chief John Piper of Coon Rapids, Minn., also said that public safety officials need to know what types of materials trains transport, but they cannot get that information.
Fire Chief Greg Cleveland of La Crosse, Wis., said one of his major concerns is a lack of radio contact with other agencies, including those across the Mississippi River in Minnesota.
Federal, state and local agencies often do not use the same radio frequencies, he said, so cannot communicate. Minnesota public safety agencies are moving to a new radio system that uses different technology and frequencies than in Wisconsin, meaning they cannot easily coordinate response to an issue involving both states.
Franken said that should have been a lesson learned 14 years ago when terrorists struck on Sept. 11 and responding agencies struggled to communicate. He said he will look into the situation.
Piper and Willmar, Minn., Mayor Marv Calvin were among those who complained about trains blocking railroad crossings for long periods of time.
“It is a huge problem for Willmar,” Calvin said, adding that downtown often is cut off from emergency personnel due to blocked crossings.
“A majority of communities in west-central Minnesota are affected by this train traffic,” Calvin said. “The faster we can get them through our communities, the better for us.”
The Federal Railroad Administration announced Wednesday it is accepting applications for $10 million from communities along oil and ethanol train routes to improve crossings.
“These funds will allow states to design programs to improve rail and highway safety along routes moving crude by rail,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said.
Baldwin and Franken said Republicans and Democrats are working together to improve rail safety and after the House passes its version of a six-year transportation funding bill, lawmakers may insert more rail safety measures before it heads to the president.
They said first responders such as firefighters need better training.
As Cleveland said: “These are usually once-in-a-career events. We have one chance to get this right.”