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Oil train numbers drop along with oil prices

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Minnesota House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, left, and John Apitz, representing state railroads, talk before a Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, meeting dealing with rail safety. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 4
Chairman Paul Torkenson of the Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee runs a Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, meeting about rail safety. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 4
Paul Hester of BNSF Railway Co., right, tells a Minnesota House committee on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, about hazardous materials response plans by the railroad. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL — A third as many trains haul North Dakota crude oil across Minnesota as two years ago.

Falling oil prices forced a drop in oil output in the Bakken region in western North Dakota, which meant a dramatic drop in the number of trains needed to haul the oil to refineries to the east and south. Most North Dakota oil trains go through Minnesota.

The state Public Safety Department could not immediately say specifically how many trains go through Minnesota now. However, BNSF Railway Co. officials said it has about three trains dedicated to oil passing through Minnesota every day, compared to nine at the oil boom's peak.

BNSF is, by far, the biggest oil hauler in Minnesota. Most trains enter the state at Moorhead and go southeast through the Twin Cities and then south along the Mississippi River. Some trains head south through Willmar.

A North Dakota report last month showed that about 850,000 barrels a day were shipped from the state's oil patch each day in the fall of 2014. Late last year, that had fallen to about 300,000 barrels.

While the number of trains is down, state officials say they plan to continue to build Minnesota efforts to prevent rail accidents and improve emergency workers' respond if accidents occur.

"The track record is good," Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, of the House Transportation Committee said Thursday, Feb. 2, after his committee heard two days of discussion about railroads.

State legislators will consider a transportation budget this year, including how much to spend on rail safety. But railroad representatives say their companies will continue to invest in safety regardless of state funding.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz said that in the past two years railroads spent $700 million to improve their their Minnesota infrastructure. He said BNSF alone plans to spend another $85 million this year.

Apitz and Paul Hester of BNSF said the rail industry gets 99.997 percent of products safely to their destinations, thanks in part to improved facilities.

Safety concerns

Minnesota officials have discussed rail safety for the past few years, worried that deadly rail accidents that have occurred elsewhere could happen closer to home.

When Democrats ran the Legislature, railroads were assessed a tax to help support training and other safety issues. Republicans now are in charge and hesitate raising taxes.

Most of the talk is about oil trains because of crude oil's volatility, but ethanol is being examined. State Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly said there are a lot of similarities between the two, but one of the big difference between oil and ethanol, a fuel usually made from corn, is that firefighters should use a different type of foam to dose ethanol fires.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, could not get state officials to tell him the extent the rails carry ethanol. The officials promised to get back to him with the information, including how many live close enough to tracks that they could be affected by a derailment or explosion.

After a Forum News Service inquiry two years ago, the state estimated that 326,000 Minnesotans live in the "blast zone" within a half mile of oil train routes. Oil trains also travel near schools, businesses and even under Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins.

Kelly said that in the past two years local communities have improved their readiness in railroad and state-funded training.

Minnesota has hazardous materials response teams in Duluth, International Falls, Grand Rapids, Moorhead, St. Cloud, Rochester, Mankato and Marshall, as well as three in the Twin Cities. They can respond anywhere in the state.

Gov. Mark Dayton recommends $3.5 million to build a training facility for state and local emergency responders at Camp Ripley. The facility would include a short railroad track to be used to simulate derailments. While emergency responder training is a priority, some communities are pushing for money to build overpasses or underpasses to separate roads from railroads. Dayton seeks nearly $70 million for rail crossings in Moorhead, Red Wing and Coon Rapids.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, questioned whether that was a safety issue, but Peter Dahlberg of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said that a train can derail in a collision.

Dahlberg said that the state has little control over most parts of rail operation, but it can help with crossing safety. He said that fewer than 1 percent of all rail accidents occur at crossings.

Torkelson backs the crossings for safety and to allow people in those cities to get back and forth. "I believe those projects are worthy."

However, the chairman said that he will not know if they can be funded until legislative leaders tell budget committees how much money they can spend.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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