Low oil prices give Minnesota railroad regulators breather to address train safety issues

Energy Associated Press

Lower gas prices have had an added bonus in Minnesota beyond fatter wallets: Train traffic is leveling off, giving regulators space to refocus on safety issues, a state railroad official told lawmakers Wednesday.

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"That's the good news. It gives us a little breathing space," Dave Christianson, a rail planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, told a state House committee.

The memories of an explosive wreck that killed 47 people in Quebec and a near-miss in North Dakota a year ago still loom large in Minnesota, where train traffic has grown dramatically as the Bakken oilfield boomed. An average of seven oil trains pass through Minnesota daily, each hauling millions of gallons of the volatile crude.

That number likely won't decrease as North Dakota oil producers see slimmer profits from falling oil prices, Christianson said, but the traffic levels should hold as prices remain low.

Minnesota regulators have plenty on their plate during the lull.

After the fiery derailment in Casselton, North Dakota, in late 2013, the state added two railroad inspectors to what was once a one-person operation, checking tracks for defaults. They're now considering adding a fourth inspector. Transportation officials have identified dozens of railroad crossings in need of repairs or improvements.

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And the state's Department of Public Safety is working to ensure first responders and firefighters are prepared to handle a potential accident — a weak point identified in a recent study. Released last week, the department's report found that most local governments along oil routes don't have the necessary equipment to respond to an accident. More than half of the workers surveyed said they needed more training.

After addressing a Senate panel Wednesday about the state's readiness, Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Mark Dunaski said the key is making smaller communities aware that they can get help with preparing response plans and training.

"A lot of the stuff is really at our fingertips. It's just identifying it," he said.

Christianson warned lawmakers that although production and train traffic may have leveled off, oil's position in the market can be unpredictable.

"Within a matter of months, we could see many new trains ... on our rails," he said.