Violations and derailments are down drastically from decades ago, according to MnDOT. Railroads made improvements and upgraded aging track after many were allowed to shed little-used lines after deregulation in 1980, said Dave Christianson, who oversees rail planning for MnDOT.
Since then, rail safety has improved significantly, officials said.
‘Fox guarding the henhouse’
Moving products by rail is safer than moving it by truck, officials said. But with more hazardous freight moving through the state, government shouldn’t rely on private industry to look out for public safety, advocates warn.
“We can’t leave this up to the private sector alone. This is like the fox guarding the hen house,” said House Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.
While only 26 states have their own track inspectors, 14 have two or more. Fifteen states have their own rail hazmat inspectors.
A state rail inspector in Minnesota costs about $120,000 a year in compensation and equipment, Christianson said. Those costs can be passed on to railroad companies through assessments. Railroad companies have not opposed legislation to add more of those jobs.
“While 99.997 percent of all hazardous materials moved on rail arrive safely at their destination … if there is concern amongst the public, we want to make sure that is allayed,” said John Apitz of the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association.
Christianson said too few government inspectors could mean things get overlooked. “If you don’t have enough people out there to regularly look over all the track that’s there, then you’re going to miss something.”
The hum of the track
In the meantime, Brandt does his best to prioritize his inspections based on a rail line’s usage and maintenance history. He also investigates accidents and responds to calls pointing out rail safety concerns.
“You have to pick your poison,” he said.
On a blustery morning last week, Brandt headed out to inspect a section of the Minnesota Prairie Line, 94 miles of track owned by five counties in southern Minnesota and operated by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. The relatively new track had been maintained well, Brandt said, but every track needs inspecting. The line hosts trains carrying 100 tons of ethanol per car from a plant in Winthrop, Minn.
Brandt climbed into a hi-rail truck — a pickup equipped with small rubber wheels to ride atop the rails. Terry Resick, inspector for Twin Cities & Western Railroad, drove. Brandt forewarns companies that he’s coming so they can arrange to bring him onto their tracks between trains.
As they crawled down the track at 15 miles per hour between Winthrop, Gaylord and Arlington, Brandt surveyed the rails, looking for defective welds, heaves and dips, feeling the smoothness of the ride for notable bumps and listening for blips in the humming and grinding of the wheels.
“After 46 years, it jumps out at you,” he said. “It just comes with experience.”
Railroads require more maintenance and precision than do highways, Christianson explained. Federal standards say that for 65-mph freight track, for instance, there should be only 1½-inch deviance from being perfectly level and straight over a 62-foot section.
Federal inspectors and railroads use a car with lasers to check dimensions such as the width between the rails, levelness of the track and the angles at curves. Many railroads also hire vehicles with ultrasonic equipment to detect hidden defects in track metal.