House Transportation Finance Committee Talks Trains

The committee discussed major delays on the Northstar Commuter Line, and escalating freight rail safety concerns.
(Published Mar 3, 2014)

The House Transportation Finance Committee held a hearing on Feb. 27 to discuss two emerging issues related to railroads: major delays on the Northstar Commuter Line and escalating freight rail safety concerns stemming from the transport of hazardous substances.

Northstar delays
Since early this year, the Northstar Commuter Line between Elk River and Minneapolis has experienced a spike in delays. The committee heard from officials from the Metro Transit, which operates the line, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), which owns the track and right-of-way that Northstar uses. An agreement between BNSF and Metro Transit stipulates that 95 percent of all Northstar trains should be dispatched to arrive at their terminal station within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time each month. Since January, that figure is down to about 75 percent, according to Metro Transit.

Brian Sweeny, a representative of BNSF, testified that the cause of the delays is unrelenting frigid weather. He said that the temperatures have cause switches to freeze up and tracks to become brittle. Repair crews can only work for 20 minutes at a time given the conditions.

Metro Transit Manager Brian Lamb took issue with the BNSF excuse, saying there were many days with subzero temperatures when trains ran on time. He indicated that customers are losing confidence in the reliability of the line, and that issues need to be resolved promptly. The committee is expected to revisit this issue if problems persist.

Hazardous substance rail transport
The committee also spent considerable time discussing safety issues related to rail transport of crude oil and other hazardous substances. The hearing was prompted by incidents involving trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota.

On Dec. 30, one of these trains derailed from a BNSF Railway track near Casselton, N.D. The resulting fire led to an evacuation of residents and a need for contamination mitigation. In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. In Minnesota on Feb. 3, a Canadian Pacific train leaked about 12,000 gallons of crude oil from Red Wing to south of Winona about 70 miles.

The commissioners of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency testified that they are working with local police and fire officials to identify training and equipment needs and develop action plans necessary to respond to a major derailment involving hazardous materials. Fire officials also testified, saying any response to an oil freight derailment or pipeline leak would be too large for one department, instead requiring coordination between multiple state and local agencies to contain a large-scale event.

While no legislation was considered during the hearing, Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), chair of the committee, said a bill will likely be introduced and considered in March. The House Transportation Finance Committee is scheduled to hold another hearing on oil freight and pipeline safety on March 5.

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