North Dakota residents who have survived five train derailments in the last decade were feeling fortunate Friday that the latest rail mishap involved newer and stronger oil tanker cars that were empty.
BNSF Railway officials said it appears that a broken rail caused a derailment near Casselton, which affected 21 cars of an eastbound train carrying lumber and paper and 12 cars of a westbound train carrying empty oil tankers. There was no fire or hazardous waste spilled and no one was hurt, but public officials reacted angrily to what appeared to be the town's second escape from a potentially dangerous oil train fire in less than a year.
"We've been fortunate enough that the derailments that have happened around town have happened around town and not in town," Casselton Mayor Lee Anderson said.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the railway is working with the Federal Railroad Administration on factors that led to the break and also plans a broad review of infrastructure in the area.
"The track was visually inspected earlier yesterday with no issues and has been regularly inspected in accord with our track inspection program which complies with federal standards," McBeth said in a statement. "We are grateful that there were no injuries."
The accident comes less than a year after a derailment involving oil tankers 1 mile west of Casselton sparked massive explosions and left a black cloud hanging over the town of about 2,500 people. There were no injuries, but hundreds of people voluntarily evacuated. That accident was blamed on a broken axel.
There were previous derailments around Casselton in September 2009, May 2005 and December 2004.
"Last night we were lucky. We were lucky the trains that derailed didn't hurt anyone and that the crude oil train was empty," North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said. "But we can't rely on luck. We saw what happened in Casselton almost a year ago and yesterday's incident is disappointing."
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said officials cannot accept the premise that the area is the "Bermuda Triangle of railroads" with no plausible explanation for the mishaps.
"I'm not condemning BNSF, but we are owed some answers," Laney said. "To keep having derailments of this magnitude in the same area ... we need to see some research, some studies, whatever it is they do."
North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said BNSF CEO Matt Rose told him Friday the railway plans to do "a complete analysis of every foot" of a roughly 7-mile stretch of track on either side of Casselton and make improvements a priority. That includes the rail base, ballast, ties, crossings and other factors, the governor said.
"The CEO is not satisfied," Dalrymple said. "He's going to make a special project out of that stretch."
Dalrymple was told the lumber train was travelling at 33 mph when it derailed, and the oil tanker train was going about 4 mph. The tankers that derailed were newer models and were not breached, he said.
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven and Heitkamp issued statements calling for continued improvements to rail safety.
"As North Dakota grows, we continue to make safety for our communities a priority," Hoeven said. "That is why in the course of our past discussions with BNSF, we have pressed the company to limit speeds where appropriate and make the necessary capital investments to upgrade safety and efficiency."