Study: MN rail crossing upgrades needed as oil train traffic jumps

A train with empty oil tankers in Moorhead
A train hauling empty crude oil tankers heads west at a Moorhead crossing, Feb. 27, 2014.
Ann Arbor Miller / For MPR News

More than 100 train crossings in Minnesota require safety upgrades, according to a study of the state's oil train routes.

Officials identified more than $300 million in rail crossing safety projects, including crossings within a half-mile of facilities like schools and hospitals. That would be the evacuation zone if an oil train derailed.

Nine projects in Big Lake, Clear Lake, Elk River, Perham, St. Cloud, St. Paul Park, Wadena and Winona can be funded with $2 million set aside by the Legislature during its 2014 session, said Dave Christianson, senior planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"This is really a starting point. Obviously funding is an issue," he said. "This first $2 million is only an investment to start the process."

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Train traffic in Minnesota has jumped in recent years, driven by oil cars serving North Dakota's booming Bakken oil fields. In several communities, rail traffic is a critical problem, Christianson said, "especially their emergency access in the case of a medical emergency or fire or something on one side of the tracks and the emergency units are headquartered on the opposite side."

The cost of adding needed safety features to the state's existing rail crossings is estimated at $65 million to $70 million. The cost of 15 grade separations, where a new tunnel or bridge would allow traffic to freely cross the tracks, is estimated at $243 million.

Some of the identified projects are already partially funded with federal, state or local money. MnDOT will look there for more funding.

The study looked at 683 crossings of oil train routes across Minnesota. MnDOT identified 102 as high priority crossings needing safety improvement. A detailed study was made of 40 crossings.