State leaders are trying to get more help as the rail traffic from the North Dakota oil boom has raised the potential risk to residents along the lines.
Jim Brandt, Minnesota’s state railroad-track inspector, checked a stretch of track last week near Arlington, Minn., for safety issues such as defective welds, heaves or dips, excessive rotting of ties or water buildup. “After 46 years, it jumps out at you,” Brandt said.
WINTHROP, Minn. - Jim Brandt’s steel-toed boots treaded nimbly across the railroad ties as he scanned the track around him for loose bolts, unfastened clips, gaping switches — anything that could prove dangerous for massive trains.
Everything looked good, he confirmed with a quick nod; time to move on. The rest of the state’s 4,500 miles of rail awaited.
About 150 trains a day rattle throughout Minnesota, the eighth-largest rail network in the country. The mild-mannered Brandt is the only state inspector overseeing those tracks for safety.
“You can only do so much,” Brandt said. “I just do the best job possible.”
It’s always been a daunting task, and the stakes are now higher than ever. The North Dakota oil boom has transformed Minnesota into a vital rail link between oil fields to the west and refineries to the east. An average of more than 800 cars loaded with Bakken crude oil — widely considered one of the most volatile cargoes on the lines — roll through the state every day, stirring unease along the way. The potential risk to residents along the lines has state and federal officials pressing for more inspections and tougher regulations.
A single rail accident can mean big disaster. A December oil train derailment outside Casselton, N.D., resulted in massive explosions and the evacuation of most of citizens. An explosive derailment in Quebec last summer killed 47 people. Both involved North Dakota crude.
The issue has raised panicked questions at the State Capitol and in Washington, where hearings have focused on the volatility of the crude and the strength of the cars used to transport it.
In Minnesota, Brandt works with two federal inspectors to oversee the work of the railroads, which employ their own inspectors.
State leaders are trying to get Brandt more help. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is requesting legislative approval for an additional state track inspector and two hazardous-material rail inspectors. State lawmakers are considering a set of bills to improve rail safety, including increasing emergency response training and improving grade crossings.
Overall, Minnesota’s railroad freight is growing 3 percent a year, officials said.
“Things have changed pretty considerably and will continue to change pretty rapidly,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and chairman of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee. “I feel a ton of urgency.”
Brandt tries not to think of the enormity of it as he walks the rails or rides them in special trucks. At 63, he’s been working on railroads for 46 years and has been up and down every track in Minnesota many times, including when he and a co-worker were federally funded state track inspectors decades ago. Those jobs fell to budget cuts. The state went without any full-time inspectors in the mid-2000s, but MnDOT brought Brandt into a full-time state inspection role five years ago.
Still, rail tracks are largely self-regulated. Together, railroad companies employ more than 60 of their own inspectors in Minnesota, MnDOT officials said.
BNSF, for instance, has 30 inspectors overseeing its 1,600 miles of track in Minnesota. It inspects most key routes that handle crude oil four times a week — more than twice what’s required by the federal government — and the busiest lines are inspected daily, according to the company.
Still, Brandt and his federal colleagues have plenty to do. Last year they wrote 1,138 track safety defect reports, a MnDOT official said in testimony prepared for the Legislature. Those can include relatively minor infractions that don’t immediately endanger a train or employees, such as finding too many rotting ties.
They also wrote 141 track violations, which are more serious, MnDOT said. Those problems might include uncorrected defects or broken rails. Some violations pose enough danger to warrant stopping traffic on the line and levying fines.
In 2013, the state saw 10 mainline derailments, MnDOT said. That does not include minor derailments in track yards or elsewhere without financial damage or injury.