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South Dakota train derailment cause still unknown

Burlington Northern Sante Fe Emergency Responders hose off the tanker cars that derailed early Saturday morning approximately 7 miles southeast of Scotland. Seven tanker cars derailed with three of them having been compromised. The tankers were carrying ethanol. (Matt Gade/Republic)

SCOTLAND, S.D. -- Two days after a 98-car train carrying ethanol partially derailed, no cause has been determined, and officials say an investigation may take up to one year.

Terry Williams -- public affairs officer for the National Transportation Safety Board -- said the investigation began Sunday, but there are no solid leads. The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting the investigation.

"We are at the beginning of this investigation in the very early stages," Williams said.

Seven cars of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tanker train derailed at about 6:15 a.m. Saturday and leaked ethanol into the pasture land in rural Scotland, S.D., where some of the contents caught fire.

No one was injured, including the two BNSF crew members on the freight train.

So far, seven investigators have inspected the train cars and completed interviews with the engineer and conductor.

"We are looking at the track, of course; we're looking at the cars; we're looking at maintenance records; we're looking at employee records," Williams said. "Those are standard procedures."

Amy McBeth, spokesperson for BNSF in South Dakota, said this track connects Aberdeen to Sioux City, but BNSF has taken steps to ensure shipments are not stopped.

"What we typically do when we have an incident like this is we reroute using alternate routes, and we've done this in this case," McBeth said.

"Customers could see some delays of 24 to 48 hours on shipments moving through that corridor, but we can reroute with relative ease," she said.

BNSF owns 898 route miles and employs 700 people in South Dakota. McBeth said the company plays an important role in the state's economy by creating links to other markets, so it is working quickly to get this track back in service.

Todd Yeaton, chairman of the South Dakota State Railroad Board, which manages railroad properties controlled by the state, said because this is a privately owned line, the SDSRB is not involved, but Yeaton said the track was originally owned by the state before BNSF purchased it for private use.

Yeaton said many older tracks are still using wooden bridges that were included during the original building process.

A wooden trestle bridge collapsed sometime during the crash, and although it's difficult to know from track to track, Yeaton said, "If it was a wooden trestle, most likely it was one of the original ones."

"They'll be upgraded for heavier cars, but the majority of bridges are original bridges that were put in," Yeaton said.

As of Monday, no one would confirm if a collapsed bridge was the cause of the derailment.

Williams said the investigation will likely take about a year, but the rail line should be able to open after the National Transportation Safety Board has finished inspecting the track and the derailed cars, which Williams said should be completed shortly.

In preparation of that moment, BNSF has begun repairs on the rail line, and McBeth estimates the track will reopen on Wednesday.

"We're focusing on responding to this incident and making the repairs and working with all the agencies that have been working on the investigation," McBeth said.

Williams said NTSB has no authority to give fines, but following the investigation, the board will send a report to the Federal Railroad Administration, which could take further administrative action.

FRA Spokesperson Mike Booth said the FRA has opened its own investigation. After both are complete, the FRA will begin to consider if action must be taken.

"Our investigation will determine the root cause of the accident, and we will take any kind of enforcement action that is necessary," Booth said. "But there's no way of knowing at this point if there is any fault to point to or what was the cause of the accident."

These potential enforcement actions could include safety advisories, monetary penalties, enforcement actions, inspections and more.