A freight train in the Kenilworth Corridor.  Credit:

A freight train in the Kenilworth Corridor. Credit:

State lawmakers raise new concerns about oil trains

Updated: April 8, 2016 - 1:46 pm

Transportation Committee Chairs Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, along with several other state legislators, have sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board expressing concerns about the impact of increased oil train traffic on passenger trains.

“In the wake of increased freight train traffic through Minnesota from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, we are concerned not only about the safety of our constituents, but also the loss of economic development opportunity to the state,” they wrote.

They pointed to Amtrak’s Empire Builder as one route facing significant delays as a result of the spike in oil shipments. As of June 2014, Amtrak reported a 15 percent drop in passengers on the Empire Builder because of the delays and estimated monthly losses of $1 million.

“Given that commercial air or bus service operating on the same route as the Empire Builder is inadequate, this route is vital to the transportation interests of our state and nation,” they wrote.

Dibble and Hornstein also held a joint House and Senate hearing Tuesday to explore the rail congestion problem. Representatives of businesses depending on trains to transport their goods along with rail officials testified.

According to a Session Daily article, Brian Sweeney, regional vice president of state government affairs for BNSF Railway, said oil trains aren’t the only factor in the increased congestion.

“We are not prioritizing oil trains,” he said. “Everybody’s service has suffered.”

Hornstein has also been pushing for rail companies to implement stronger public safety measures and environmental review protocols.

Under current law, the public doesn’t have the right to call a freight company and ask what cargo is being transported in train cars. The issue has become a greater concern for Minneapolis residents given that Southwest Light Rail trains will be co-located next to freight train traffic.

“People in the Kenilworth Corridor can’t just call the railroad company and ask what is in that train car,” he said.

Hornstein is pushing for greater transparency and requirements that oil companies agree to speedy cleanup plans in the event of a derailment, among other things.

During the 2014 session, Hornstein championed legislation that required train companies to create safety plans and coordinate with local first responders on action plans to prepare for potential accidents. It also increased the number of state rail inspectors and set aside money to upgrade rail grade crossings. Funding for the first responder training and grade crossings will come from an annual assessment on rail and pipeline companies.