Minnesota lawmakers push rail safety bill after fiery ethanol derailment

A bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, would require railroads and pipeline operators to coordinate more closely with local emergency managers on derailments and other incidents.

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Workers surround a pileup of rail cars in Raymond following a BNSF derailment on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

ST. PAUL — State lawmakers are advancing a bill to strengthen rail safety requirements after a fiery train derailment Thursday forced the evacuation of a west-central Minnesota town.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, would require railroads and pipeline operators to coordinate more closely with local emergency managers on derailments and other incidents. It would set a response timeline and ground rules for coordination between local officials and companies in emergencies involving hazardous substances or oil.

Kupec’s northwest Minnesota district is a major freight rail corridor, with a rail line passing through the center of many of the region’s cities such as Moorhead and Detroit Lakes. Dozens of trains pass through the cities each day, Kupec said.

“Should something go wrong in one of these heavily populated areas, having the proper information of how to respond and have timely communication with railroad officials could be the difference between an accident and a disaster,” he told the Senate Transportation Committee at a Friday hearing on the bill.

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Between 2012 and 2022, Minnesota had 344 train derailments, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. During the early morning hours of Thursday, a BNSF Railway train carrying highly flammable ethanol derailed and caught fire in the city of Raymond in Kandiyohi County. No one was injured, but roughly 800 residents had to leave their homes over safety concerns.


Kupec’s bill would increase the frequency of training sessions held by emergency officials and railways for scenarios like the derailment in Raymond, a situation he says could have been far worse. They’d be required to do a “tabletop” training once a year, and a full-scale exercise every three years. Emergency managers would have to be involved in railway training on hazardous materials.

In addition to the new coordination and training requirements, the bill calls for increasing the number of railway inspectors from four to six. Gov. Tim Walz has also backed increasing the number of rail inspectors.

New emergency preparedness programs and the new inspectors would be paid for through an assessment of railways and pipeline operators. Companies operating in Minnesota would split the cost of a $4 million annual payment to the state. Railways and pipeline companies used to pay a $2.5 million assessment to Minnesota each year but the policy sunsetted in 2017.

The Senate Transportation Committee approved the bill on a voice vote Friday to refer it to the Judiciary Committee. Transportation Chair Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said it’d be included in a larger finance bill. House Transportation Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, announced after the Raymond derailment that he plans to introduce a companion bill on Monday.

Five people testified in favor of the Senate rail safety bill Friday, including members of a citizen’s rail safety group and a representative from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Clay County Emergency Manager Gabe Tweten, who would be involved in a response to a derailment in Moorhead or nearby cities, praised the bill and its training requirements.

“The incident that happened in Kandiyohi County yesterday — this is the thing that keeps myself and other emergency managers up at night,” he said. “It is definitely something I feel we may be undertrained on and don't work closely enough with the railways.”

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email .

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Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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