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Federal order mandates oil trains reduce speeds in cities

Updated: April 8, 2016 - 1:45 pm

The Federal Rail Administration has issued an emergency order requiring trains transporting crude oil and other flammable liquids to travel a maximum of 40 mph as they travel through urban areas.

BNSF Railway, which transports the majority of Bakken oil that passes through Minnesota, recently announced it would reduce speeds of oil trains passing through the Twin Cities to 35 mph.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A), a leader on rail safety issues at the state Capitol, said the Federal Rail Administration’s emergency order issued Friday doesn’t go far enough to safeguard communities.

“The FRA announcement falls short of adequately protecting communities from the risks and dangers of crude oil transportation,” he said. “In Minnesota over 326,000 people live within the evacuation zone of a potential oil train spill.”

Hornstein urged federal officials to require a maximum speed of 30 mph for oil and ethanol trains and reroute oil and ethanol trains to avoid populated areas in a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

He also called for public notification of the chemical composition and quantity of crude oil and ethanol shipments, shippers to use more durable rail cars and a reduction in the volatility of Bakken crude oil.

“At the state level, we must require railroads to adequately fund safety measure, like grade crossings along oil train routes, in order to prevent disasters in our communities,” he said.

Hornstein has authored legislation pending this session that requires funding for grade crossings and grade separated crossing on all Minnesota oil train routes.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, also issued a statement on the Federal Rail Administration’s emergency order. He said the speed reduction is an important step, but expressed frustration that new safety standards for rail cars hasn’t been issued yet.

“Every day, trains carrying highly volatile oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota pass through Moorhead, Saint Cloud, large portions of the Twin Cities metro, and many other cities and towns,” Franken said, who pressed the Department of Transportation last year to slow the speed of the trains.

“I’m pleased that, in response, the Department has announced a new emergency measure that’s an important step forward to protect Twin Cities residents. But at the same time, I’m disappointed that we’re still waiting on the new rail tank car safety standards to be released,” he said. “This is a serious issue for communities across Minnesota, and slow-walking the release of these important new safety measures is unacceptable.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, has also been engaged in rail safety issues. She recently wrote a letter to BNSF and Canadian Pacific expressing concerns about the railroad companies plans for a proposed rail connection project in Crystal that would send oil train traffic through Crystal, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley and downtown Minneapolis.

BNSF and Canadian Pacific have rail lines that cross in Crystal, but the tracks don’t connect. The proposed connection would allow train traffic that currently runs east to west be redirected south through the northwestern suburbs and Minneapolis.

“I have heard from constituents and local officials who have expressed significant concerns about the project’s impact on their communities,” she wrote in the letter. “I urge you to engage fully with local stakeholders and clearly communicate the project’s potential impact on affected communities before proceeding futher.”

Hennepin County is working on acquiring a key parcel of land in Crystal in an effort to stop the reroute of oil train traffic.

Amy Mcbeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the railroad companies have been “communicating with elected officials and the communities on this project and will continue to do so.”

“We’ve made great strides in improving service for all of our freight customers over last year, and one of the ways we do that is to improve our capacity,” she said. “This project is an example of how we look to further utilize and expand our infrastructure, which benefits all train traffic moving on our routes in the Twin Cities. At this point, there isn’t any additional new information on the project.”

The Journals recently published an in-depth report, “Risky Rails,” examining oil train safety issues.