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Minnesota lawmaker plans new oil train safety legislation

A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this aerial photograph Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. Forum file photo

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota Legislature transportation chairman plans a 2020 rail safety plan implementing more regulations, even as the Trump administration has backed away from requiring two people to work on freight trains.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said his proposal to require two-person train crews that failed this year will be back next year as part of a major rail safety package.

Hornstein’s comments come as the Federal Railroad Association dumped a plan to require two-person crews, saying a study of 2013 crude oil trains accidents in North Dakota and Canada failed to produce proof that would improve rail safety

“That’s OK by me,” former Minnesota House Transportation Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said of the federal action. “The railroads’ safety record has been outstanding.”

Torkelson said technology has made freight trains safer and railroads will use as many crew members as needed for safety.

Hornstein, however, said he plans to incorporate a two-crew rule in a package of rail safety bills he will introduce for the 2020 legislative session.

The 2013 accidents and others that followed drew calls for rail safety across the country, but nowhere more so than in Minnesota, where officials estimated that 326,000 people live within a half mile of where oil trains frequently travel. That is an area called the “blast zone” if oil cars catch fire and blow up.

Nationally, it is estimated that 25 million people live near oil train routes.

Minnesota officials, led by then-Gov. Mark Dayton and Hornstein, launched into rail safety efforts soon after the Casselton accident.

The state added rail inspectors and increased help for local governments to build safer rail crossings. They also took action to encourage better emergency response to rail disasters.

Most North Dakota oil goes through Minnesota, with many trains following tracks from Moorhead to St. Paul, through downtown Minneapolis, and south along the Mississippi River.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.