Midwest railroads have seen a dramatic increase in crude transported from the booming oil regions in North Dakota and Canada. The jump in traffic, however, is increasing the worry over train accidents.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has welcomed new federal safety recommendations in the wake of an accident that forced the evacuation of much of Casselton, N.D., in December. Hoeven, North Dakota's former governor, talked to MPR News' Tom Crann about what needs to be done to improve U.S. rail safety.
Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.
CRANN: What concerns you the most about the dramatic uptick in oil moving by rail?
HOEVEN We've got a lot more crude moving by rail and we have to everything we can to move it safely. That means doing everything we can to avoid derailments, but if there is a derailment, making sure that we reduce the risk of fire or explosion.
CRANN: I'm sure you're in touch with executives at some of the nation's biggest railroads about this. What is your message to them?
HOEVEN They have to do more and be part of the solution, which they recognize. It's in their interest to move this product safely just as it's in the public interest. And so we're working with not just the railroad companies, but with the oil companies who are the shippers and with the regulators on safety measures.
Those include evaluating speeds: Can more be done in terms of managing the speeds, particularly when they go through communities? Routing: Are there routing options that improve safety?
More can be done in terms of testing product that's going into these tank cars to make sure it's properly labeled as to the type of products in these cars, and that they get it in the right type of tank car. More in terms of getting the new, stronger rail cars out in the fleet: the new "1232 car" versus the older "DOT 111" cars.
CRANN: Tell us about the difference between those rail cars and what it's going to take to get more of the newer -- presumably more safe and sturdy -- ones on the rails.
HOEVEN In 2011, the [oil] industry, on a voluntary basis, went forward with a stronger car -- a car that has double hull on the front and back ends of the car, has additional super structure and venting.
And they actually went ahead on a voluntarily basis to the 1232 car because the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Administration, which is the regulatory arm of the Department of Transportation, had not come out with new standards for a new tank car, which they still haven't.
Right now about 30 percent of the fleet is the new stronger car and the shippers have committed to double that by the end of 2015 to 60 percent. But they're still working with the regulator to determine exactly what should be included in that strengthened car.
CRANN: What specifically would you like Congress to do to improve rail safety?
HOEVEN One of the things that's very important is to get these new pipelines in place. Private industry is ready to step up and make investments in pipeline. I'm working very hard to get those things approved.
I'll give you an example: Keystone XL pipeline, which has been held up for over five years by the [Obama] administration. That would take 100,000 barrels of oil a day off of roads in western North Dakota. So I'd like to see Congress approve it because the president hasn't.
CRANN: Pipelines, however, can explode and have accidents as well. Do you feel, though, in general, they are a safer way to move this oil than trains?
HOEVEN I think you need all of the above. You need pipelines. You need trains. And some will go by truck. But to move product as safely as possible, you need all of them and you need them in the right combination.
So it's about building the proper infrastructure, as we produce more energy, to move that product as safely and efficiently to markets. So I think it's all part of the solution.