Trains with flammable crude oil and hazardous materials rumble next to people’s homes across Minnesota on a daily basis. It’s an issue that “keeps our first responders up at night,” says Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis).
Oil train safety became front page news in 2013 when a train of unattended tanker cars rolled downhill and exploded in Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people. A few months later a train full of crude oil from the Bakken oilfield exploded in Casselton, North Dakota, in a huge fireball. Luckily, no one was seriously injured in that blast. But the incidents drove home the potential dangers of having so much oil from North Dakota being shipped by rail — and much of that rail goes through Minnesota.
To address the safety issues, Gov. Mark Dayton hired Alene Tchourumoff as Minnesota’s first State Rail Director in April. She and Hornstein talked this month at the League of Women Voter’s “Civic Buzz” meeting about what progress has been made.
Hornstein told the group that rail safety was “on the right track” and immediately asked forgiveness for the pun. He said a bill that he helped pass got the railroad companies to pay into a fund for training first responders and for safety contingency planning. However, he said the railroads have a powerful lobby and he has not been able to force the companies to make public information about what is in the trains and when they are traveling through heavily populated areas.
Before 2013, Minnesota had just one rail inspector to handle 4,000 miles of track. It now has four inspectors — but Hornstein says that’s not enough. He says the explosion in Casselton was caused by problems with axles on the railcars — something a rail inspector would be expected to catch. He hopes to get a new law that increases the number of rail inspectors as well as improves the information sharing between railroads and first responders.
Tchourumoff says communication with the railroads is complicated because each one responds to a safety incident differently. Minnesota has 22 different railroad companies. She says communities living along those railroads have questions about safety that they feel they aren’t being answered. That’s where her office comes in to make that communication work better.