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July 30, 2014

Casselton explosion sparks House, Senate hearings on rail safety

Ripples from a railroad accident that forced evacuation of a town near Fargo have reached Washington, D.C.

The Star Tribune reports both the House and Senate have scheduled hearings on rail safety this month. Some of the impetus came from Casselton, N.D., where oil tankers crashed into a derailed soybean train in December. The explosion and fire created a cloud of smoke that led authorities to clear the town.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar hailed the decision by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to hold a Thursday hearing. Klobuchar, who sits on the panel, had written to Chairman Jay Rockefeller calling for the hearing. She cited the Casselton accident as well as others in Canada and in Two Harbors in early December.

Similarly, Rep. Tim Walz, who serves on the House Transportation Committee and a subcommittee on railroads, requested a safety hearing last month. He applauded the announcement of a Feb. 26 hearing, saying residents of towns along rail routes deserve improved safety.

The hazards posed by a derailment or accident have risen along with the proportion of trains carrying crude oil. With pipelines in the region already at capacity, much of the oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation is shipped by rail.

Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota tells the National Journal he wants to see more money approved for safety inspections of railroad tracks.  “There’s a recognition that we’re moving a lot more crude by rail and we all need to work together to minimize the risk of fire or an explosion,” Hoeven says.  “And that means making sure that the tracks are safe and making sure that things are loaded and shipped properly.”

At the state level, the Star Tribune reported last week that Gov. Mark Dayton has made proposals aimed at improving rail safety. That came on a day when members of a railroad workers union protested Canadian Pacific’s safety practices outside the company’s U.S. headquarters in Minneapolis.

Investigators are looking into what caused a Canadian Pacific train to splatter about half a tanker car of oil along tracks between Red Wing and Winona. A missing cap or valve was preliminarily listed as the cause.