Railroads, with the help of mostly Republican legislative allies, handily derailed Gov. Mark Dayton’s ambitious oil-train safety initiative last session — a package that would have assessed the state’s four major haulers $330 million over 10 years to improve rail crossings throughout the state.
But the bristling tone of the letter Dayton recently sent to BNSF Railway CEO Carl Ice strongly suggests that the political will exists to fight again for this important public-safety policy package during the coming legislative session. That’s a welcome development in a state crisscrossed by increasing shipments of volatile crude oil and home to more than 425,000 people now living within half-mile-wide blast zones along oil-train routes.
Dayton’s letter spotlighted the new risks posed by a shift in rail traffic — the rerouting of oil trains through the west-central part of the state and west-metro communities because of construction along north-south lines. While BNSF filed multiple technical reports with the state about this shift, the Star Tribune Editorial Board shares Dayton’s frustration that the railroad did not do more than the minimum to alert the public or the governor.
BNSF has a long and admirable practice of holding public meetings with communities along rail lines. It should have held similar meetings in cities along the new temporary route. According to Dayton’s letter, the route shift added 99,000 people — a 30 percent increase — to the number of Minnesotans living within a half-mile of oil-train routes.
That much of the public first learned from Dayton’s letter that oil trains are now traveling on lines skirting Target Field is disturbing. Accidents are infrequent, but fiery derailments in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and Casselton, N.D., underscore that they do happen. While the risk of an accident during an event at Target Field is small, that it’s even a possibility is deeply unsettling. A BNSF spokeswoman told an editorial writer this week that the railroad will not honor Dayton’s request to suspend rail traffic during events at the ballpark. This is unacceptable.
Railroads’ lack of cooperation on other safety concerns nationally should also spur Dayton to keep fighting for rail-crossing improvements. They failed to meet a deadline for installing new braking technology and received an extension. BNSF, it should be noted, has made far more progress than others and says its work is about 85 percent complete. But it’s not the only railroad operating here.
At the state level, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has sent letters to five railroads informing them that their “prevention and response plans” did not contain sufficient information.
The rail-crossing initiative is one way to ensure that railroads do their part to protect the public and the environment around the routes carrying hazardous freight. While other measures are also needed, the Federal Railroad Administration has urged such crossing improvements nationally to improve overall rail safety. Minnesota legislators shouldn’t miss another opportunity.