Ideally, there would be no trains filled with volatile North Dakota crude oil rolling through the Twin Cities. But given the complexity of rerouting oil trains around population centers, as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended, less-sweeping safety initiatives remain critical to reducing the risk of fiery derailments.
For that reason, a recent move by one of largest haulers of crude through Minnesota merits praise and, more important, emulation by its competitors. This month, BNSF Railway announced that it is reducing by 5 miles per hour the speed of oil trains chugging through Minneapolis-St. Paul and other areas with 100,000 people or more.
Under a previous agreement with federal regulators, railroads had agreed to limit oil-train speeds to 40 mph in the metro area and 45 mph in other so-called “high threat” urban areas. The move by BNSF takes its oil train speed to 35 mph and broadens the places where it applies.
The move is part of a package of safety reforms recently announced by BNSF, including increasing track inspections for crude-oil routes near critical waterways and removing cars with potential defects from use sooner. The railroad also supports making tank cars more robust, to withstand crashes. Federal officials are expected to announce new safety standards for tank cars, which typically are not owned by the railroad, in mid-May.
Former NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker, now a transportation consultant, said reducing oil-train speeds won’t eliminate these trains’ risk. “There are no easy answers here,’’ he said. But, he added, “Any time you are attempting to slow your trains down, you have a better opportunity to move them on the tracks without derailment or other potential issues.”
About seven to eight trains of crude oil come through Minnesota every day, according to state estimates. Many are 100 cars long. BNSF isn’t the only rail company transporting crude through Minnesota. Canadian Pacific Railways is another major hauler. Its officials provided an unsatisfying statement last week saying that the company cannot comment on BNSF’s speed reduction but that it’s open to “any and all dialogue” to protect communities, employees and customers.
Canadian Pacific needs to act, and assure the public that it is matching BNSF’s move.