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.
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.
But experience and visual inspection are still valuable, too. Brandt has come to learn the spots that can create problems.
Riding on the track outside Gaylord, he noted a project to drain water away from the rails. “Is he gonna do more drainage here?” he questioned Resick. Water on tracks erodes stability.
Down the line, the pair stopped periodically to walk bridges and places where rail lines intersect. In a couple of spots, they checked switches — giant eyelash-shaped pieces of steel that can be moved to send trains on alternate tracks.
“Clear! Switch!” Resick bellowed before cranking a giant handle. Brandt, gray hair peeking from under his orange hard hat, crouched down to see how snugly the switches fit against rails. It all looked OK.
“Throw it back!” Brandt yelled.
Brandt said he knows that if something were to go drastically wrong on a Minnesota rail line, someone might try to point the finger toward him. He also knows rails will never be accident-free.
“Realistically, things happen,” he said.
Inspecting rails used to make him anxious. As a young man, he retraced miles to make sure he left switches in the right positions. But after so many years he’s confident in his work. He has come to accept that he can’t be everywhere at once.
“I don’t worry about anything I can’t control,” he said. “You can’t be second-guessing yourself. It’ll drive you crazy.”
The hi-rail truck stopped at a creek bridge, and Brandt’s boots once again glided over wooden railroad ties, this time with gaps revealing streaming water some 20 feet below. It didn’t faze him.
He trudged across, noting a rotting tie, then huddled on the creek’s banks to see the underside of the bridge. A pile of branches had floated up to the small bridge’s pilings. Brandt told Resick he’d have to write them up for that.
If the creek were to rush during a flood, it could damage the bridge and lead to real trouble, he noted. The company would get 30 days to correct it.
Resick said his company goes beyond what’s required by government inspectors. His crews would get out there to remove it well before that.