The history of the Upper Midwest has been closely shaped by railroads. When James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway connected the West and East coasts in 1893, Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s economic influence grew significantly as a result.

We appreciate the attention that U.S. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., have shown to the rail industry. However, they may be interested to know that railroads in Minnesota are already undertaking many of the safety measures they called for in their Sept. 2 commentary “Avoiding an oil train explosion shouldn’t be a matter of luck.” And unlike trucks, barges and airlines, America’s privately owned freight railroads operate almost exclusively on infrastructure that they own, build, maintain and pay for themselves.

Of course, that shouldn’t come as breaking news in our region, since Hill’s Great Northern was the first transcontinental railroad built without public money.

For Minnesota’s railroads, working to keep employees and the communities we serve safe is the most important thing we do. That’s why railroads have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in capital and safety improvements in Minnesota. Just this year alone, the four Class I railroads will spend $500 million in our state.

These investments are paying dividends — 2014 and 2013 were the two safest years on record for freight railroads in the U.S. A report on America’s infrastructure published every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers commended railroads for increasing investment during the recent economic recession, when materials prices were lower and trains ran less frequently, and said rail has made the biggest improvement since the group’s last report.

Railroads in Minnesota have voluntarily implemented the following safety measures:

Increased track inspections: Performed additional rail inspections more frequently than Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requirements.

Improved trackside safety technology: Railroads now have more hot-bearing detectors on crude-oil routes to warn of equipment issues.

Better routes: Use of a rail corridor risk-management system to determine the safest and most secure routes for crude-oil trains.

Slower speeds: Implemented voluntary reduced speeds for trains carrying certain levels of crude oil.

More training: Developed specialized first-responder training and tuition reimbursement to train 1,500 first responders in 2014, with more training this year.

This focus on enhanced safety is working. Since 1980, rail safety has improved significantly, with the number of train accidents dropping by 79 percent and grade-crossing collisions dropping by 81 percent. In Minnesota over the last decade, the rate of train accidents has decreased by 26 percent, according to FRA records.

All of this was done without prodding from the federal government. It’s in railroads’ best interest to ensure that tracks and trains are well-maintained so we can continuously serve our customers. There’s no gain in having the system break down, preventing us from doing our work. The rail industry takes safety very seriously and does not consider avoiding accidents a matter of luck.

Minnesota’s railroads are working to better educate officials and communities on the numerous safety efforts they have long been deploying. The railroad industry believes one of the best ways to prevent incidents and derailments is through strong, safe infrastructure. Railroads’ yearly investments show that those in the industry are putting their budgets behind those words. Those investments are improving the already-strong safety record on the rails.

Thanks for your interest, senators. We look forward to working with you in the future.

 

John Apitz serves as legislative counsel to the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association. The MRRA was formed in 1987 to help inform the public about Minnesota’s railroads, and it represents the 16 freight railroads operating in the state.