Feds must do more on train, oil car safety transportation secretary says

Anthony Foxx
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (center) speaks at a roundtable on oil train safety, April 24, 2014 in the Casselton, N.D. fire hall. Republican North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple is on his left and Republican North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

The Obama administration is budgeting $40 million to manage the risks of crude oil transportation, but federal authorities know they "need to do more" to improve rail safety, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

Foxx met with local and state officials in Casselton, N.D., Thursday to discuss rail safety. The community of 2,400 just west of Fargo-Moorhead avoided disaster last December after a Burlington Northern Sante Fe freight train loaded with grain derailed and collided with an approaching oil train just outside of town.

The accident spilled 400,000 gallons of volatile Bakken crude oil and triggered a massive explosion and fire.

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More than half the town was evacuated because of the thick smoke from burning crude.

The Casselton explosion and fire "was a shock to the consciousness of not only Casselton but the country," Foxx said, regarding the danger of shipping crude oil by rail.

Casselton was not the first rail accident involving North Dakota crude oil. Last July, an oil train exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people. And in November, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed and caught fire in Alabama.

In the wake of the Casselton accident, the DOT ordered new testing of North Dakota Bakken crude. Several companies working in the North Dakota oil patch were subsequently fined for improperly classifying oil they loaded on train cars.

Casselton roundtable
Left to right: Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, and West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern listen during a roundtable on oil train safety at the Casselton, North Dakota fire hall April 24, 2014.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

In February, Foxx joined with major American railroads to announce voluntary efforts to improve oil train safety. The changes included increased track inspection on routes used by oil trains, reduced speeds through high threat urban areas including the Twin Cities, improved braking technology on oil trains, and use of a Rail Corridor Risk Management System to find the safest route for trains hauling crude oil.

The voluntary safety improvements are to take effect by July 1.

The DOT is still working on a new, safer design for rail tank cars. After the Casselton accident, the National Transportation Safety Board called the existing DOT-111 tank cars "an unacceptable public risk," because they are easily punctured in an accident.

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For more than 20 years the NTSB has been calling for safer tank cars, but new standards have not been finalized.

Earlier this year, BNSF announced it would buy 5,000 tank cars made to company specifications. However there's been an increase in orders for new tank cars that's resulted in a two-year backlog on orders.

Last year, U.S. railroads hauled about 415,000 carloads of crude oil, compared to fewer than 10,000 cars in 2008. Oil by rail is expected to increase again this year as production continues to grow in the North Dakota Bakken formation where pipeline capacity is limited.

The Canadian government has also set a deadline of May 2017, for older rail tank cars to be taken out of service. It's possible those cars could move to U.S. rail lines if the U.S. DOT does not update tank car standards soon. Foxx said the U.S. is working with Canada to "harmonize" regulations.

Railroads, shippers and government agencies are all "very committed to doing whatever we can do to improve safety," North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said.

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