Casselton, North Dakota is a town of 2,000 people about 20 minutes west of Fargo. It has a thriving main street of restaurants, bars, even a winery. Most of the businesses are in brick buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings have names etched in the mason work, the Portland, the Glasgow.
Ken Habiger walks along Main Street and points to a spot where the mortar work has obviously been replaced. Seven years ago he says, portions of the buildings collapsed into the street, luckily no one was hurt.
"That whole part up above there that whole thing came down," says Habiger. "(There was) A lot of weight to that, a lot of brick."
Like most folks in town Habiger is convinced vibrations from the trains caused the brick work to collapse. The railroad disagrees, there's not much the town and the railroad agree on. Half-a-block away trains running up to 40 miles an hour rumble down the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline. The BNSF did seismographic testing to gauge the vibrations, but the results of those tests were not made public.
Habiger says 60 trains a day come through town, but BNSF officials say it's only 30. The railroad says its tracks are safe enough to allow trains to go 60 miles an hour through town. Ken Haibiger believes the speed limit should remain at 40 miles an hour.
"Sooner or later something is going to happen, the amount of miles of track and the amount of stuff they haul, probably the safety record is good, but when it's not good it's disastrous," says Habiger.
Habiger says in the past year-and-a-half, three trains have derailed on the west end of town. Habiger is concerned a train carrying hazardous waste or chemicals will derail in town. His concerns are shared by Lee Anderson, who is president of the city council and manager of the Casselton Lumber Yard. His business sits adjacent to the tracks; his office chair is 44 feet from the rails. he watches as a train goess by his window.
"He's pretty quiet," says Anderson of a train going by. "Now if he was going through at one o'clock at night, there's a good chance he'd be on his whistle from the beginning of town to the end of town."
Anderson says the freight train passing his window is lightweight compared to the ones hauling coal and wheat. The heavier trains make more noise and cause the office to shake. Anderson has worked at the lumber yard for 19 years, he's seen first hand how the railroad takes care of its tracks.
"For a long time I thought we must be pretty safe here because I've watched over the years as they've maintained tracks and they've replaced sections and ties," says Anderson. "I thought, 'Man, they must be making a pretty safe track for us.' And yet it falls off the track three times in a year and a half? Maybe they're not doing as good of a job as I thought."
Anderson says no one was hurt in the derailments near Casselton, but he fears raising the speed limit will increase the chances of injury.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas says the tracks are safe and meet the inspection and quality standards set by the Federal Railroad Administration. Melonas says as long the railroad meets the federal standards, they can raise the speed limit.
"The speed increase will not compromise safety," says Melonas. "We've raised speeds in numerous communities across our system and have had no problems at all."
Melonas believes faster trains mean better service for customers.
"It will benefit customers because we can move product from point A to point B in a more rapid fashion and we certainly wouldn't do this if we felt the public was in jeopardy from a safety standpoint," says Melonas.
There is very little the city can do to stop the railroad from raising the speed limit. Cassleton's mayor Ed McConnell says the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1990s ordinances passed by towns restricting train speed were illegal.
McConnell has asked Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., for help. Dorgan has arranged a meeting between city officials and the railroad. McConnell says his argument for keeping the speed limit at 40 miles an hour is simple.
"I'm going to show them where their derailments were and where their broken rail was and I'm going to show them how close the buildings are and the downtown historic district," says McConnell. "I'll just try to prevail on them that it's not a wise choice to raise the speed limit, efficiency isn't worth human lives."
McConnell is hopeful BNSF officials will be persuaded by his arguments and keep the speed limit at 40 miles an hour. Sen. Dorgan has raised the possibility of congressional investigations into the issue.