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After fiery Casselton derailment, N.D. expected to launch state-run rail inspection program

BISMARCK - North Dakota regulators are expected to sign a deal with the Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday that will allow the state to launch a rail safety program funded by the Legislature and proposed after a fiery oil train derailme...

The charred remains of railroad cars
The charred remains of railroad cars after an oil tanker train derailed and exploded Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. The cars have been moved from the site of the crash to a nearby field. (Dave Wallis / Forum News Service)

BISMARCK – North Dakota regulators are expected to sign a deal with the Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday that will allow the state to launch a rail safety program funded by the Legislature and proposed after a fiery oil train derailment near Casselton in 2013.

The agreement will permit two rail safety inspectors employed by the North Dakota Public Service Commission to work with the FRA on track and mechanical inspections.

Thirty states have rail inspection programs to supplement the federal program, including neighboring Minnesota and Montana.

Commission chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said the advantage of a state-run program is that North Dakota’s inspectors will focus only on in-state track and can’t be pulled away to other states.

“It’s a big deal,” she said.


About 52 percent of the oil shipped in May from the Williston Basin went by rail, the state Pipeline Authority reported this month. Rail traffic increased 233 percent in North Dakota from 2005 to 2012 and has continued to climb since then, Fedorchak said, citing FRA data.

“That just increases the wear and tear on the track, and a large part of the increase is hazardous materials,” she said. “We want to have these folks out inspecting and finding problems before they cause an accident.”

State lawmakers voted in April to spend $523,345 on the pilot program for 2015-17, with the intent of continuing it in 2017-19. The money will come from an excise tax railroads pay on diesel fuel.

The three-member PSC and Gov. Jack Dalrymple originally proposed two full-time inspectors and a rail safety manager in the agency’s budget. The final budget provided $253,345 for a full-time permanent inspector, $70,000 for related operating expenses and $200,000 for a temporary full-time inspector whose job the Legislature will have to reapprove in 2017.

Fedorchak said she hopes to extend an offer this week to an applicant for the permanent job. The temporary job drew fewer applicants, but she also hopes to fill that position soon.

“As we knew they would be, they’re more hesitant to leave a job for a temporary job,” she said.

Under the agreement, the FRA will pay for classroom training for the state inspectors, who must be certified to participate in investigative and surveillance activities.  Depending on their experience level, the state inspectors could achieve certification in as little as six months, Fedorchak said.

As of May, the FRA had 44 rail safety inspectors and five vacancies in its eight-state region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, FRA spokesman Mike Booth said.


Nine of those inspectors were located in North Dakota, but they may serve multiple states and even other regions.

“Most of the focus right now is in North Dakota, so chances are we’re pulling people from the outside in, rather than the other way around,” Booth said.

Booth said the FRA would welcome North Dakota’s state safety program, which he called a “force multiplier” and “an essential piece of our national rail safety program.”

Commissioner Brian Kalk said he supports the agreement, calling it “a big step.” But he doesn’t want people to get a false sense of security, as the state still needs additional oil pipelines and investment by railroads to improve safety, he said.

“This is not the silver bullet here. This is one of several important steps that have to happen,” he said.

Commissioner Randy Christmann said he had the PSC’s legal counsel checking on one part of the agreement to ensure it doesn’t commit the state to services beyond what’s budgeted.

“Assuming that that’s all OK, I intend to vote for it,” he said.

Fedorchak said the PSC knows that lawmakers – who must reauthorize funding for the program in 2017 – will be watching closely.


“We’re going to be keeping really close track of the benefits of having our inspectors out on the road examining these track and mechanical issues and working with the railroads to improve their safety performance,” she said.


Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com .

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