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Road trains inch forward in face of lobbying opposition at North Dakota capitol

North Dakota legislators are considering two pieces of legislation that could make North Dakota the first state to allow the long semi-truck platoons known as "road trains."

Road Train Australia 2
A three-trailer road train driving in western Australia.
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BISMARCK — For North Dakota to become the only state in the country to allow the lengthy semi-trailer truck platoons called "road trains" on its highways, lawmakers backing the program may have to overcome opposition from several lobbying groups, including those of actual railroads.

North Dakota legislators are considering two pieces of road train legislation this session. One would grant Gov. Doug Burgum authority to waive weight and length requirements on North Dakota roads, and the other urges U.S. congressional action to make regional amendments to these restrictions, a move that would allow for a road train pilot program to run on federally managed interstates such as Interstate 94.

Currently outlawed almost everywhere in the world, road trains are most famously used in the Australian Outback, where they can easily exceed 300,000 pounds and 180 feet, well over the maximum length and weight in North Dakota. Detractors from the program often point to these Australian mammoths as a warning against what a road train program could introduce in North Dakota.

"They're not dangerous. They're absolutely not," said Sen. Oley Larsen, who sponsored the Senate bill, adding he doesn't foresee road trains like those in the Outback coming to North Dakota anytime soon. "With this pilot project, we'll never see those," he said.

Some responding to Larsen's presentation Thursday, Jan. 7, however, expressed worries about the safety of allowing longer big rigs on North Dakota highways. Honing in on the "human cost" of a road train program, Fargo attorney Nathan Severson warned harsh winter weather in North Dakota makes the platoons "a substantial risk" to state drivers.

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"It's going to affect and kill North Dakota citizens," he said.

The language of Larsen's bill is broad, asking only that Burgum waive length and weight requirements to legalize the big trucks in North Dakota. Some at the Senate meeting raised concerns about potential dangers in vaguely defining the size of the truck platoons.

Speaking on behalf of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association, Arik Spencer said his organization supports "the concept of road trains" but argued the measurements and regulations of the vehicles need to be more closely defined.

Regional railroad groups also lobbied against both pieces of legislation, with SMART Transportation Division opposing the House resolution and BNSF Railways opposing at the Senate.

"The more freight that moves by rail, the less wear and tear on the state's roadways," said Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokesperson. "There are simply many unknowns and many costs to a program that appears to have limited public and industry support."

Offering a neutral testimony on the Senate bill, Wayde Swenson, operations director for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, noted the legislation could risk putting the state out of step with federal regulation on big trucks.

This interplay between federal and state trucking laws, Larsen noted, has put his road train ambitions in a back-and-forth, "badminton" limbo for several years.

The resolution to Congress, HCR 3001, passed out of the House Transportation committee on a 10-4 vote Thursday, sending it to the chamber floor with their stamp of approval. The bill, SB 2026, is under consideration in the Senate Transportation Committee.

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Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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