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Minnesota railroads safer, legislators and railroad officials say

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's railroads are becoming safer, railroad officials and legislative transportation leaders agree. The state's four largest railroads invested more than $500 million on infrastructure last year, most of which improved safety. ...

Minnesota legislative transportation chairmen Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing (left) and Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis talk Monday at the start of a transportation funding hearing. Don Davis/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - Minnesota’s railroads are becoming safer, railroad officials and legislative transportation leaders agree.

The state’s four largest railroads invested more than $500 million on infrastructure last year, most of which improved safety. By far the biggest investment was from Minnesota’s largest railroad, $326 million by BNSF Railway Co.

“These improvements are paying off for all kinds of traffic,” BNSF Vice President Brian Sweeney told Minnesota legislators Monday.

Besides improving safety, the construction is speeding up traffic that faced massive bottlenecks a couple of years ago. The Amtrak Empire Builder, which runs on BNSF tracks, recorded a “dismal” 23 percent on-time rate in 2014, Sweeney said, but last month hit the 90-percent mark.

Sweeney said a variety of projects, including laying a second set of tracks northwest of the Twin Cities, is helping safety. Since 2013, no BNSF rail cars have leaked hazardous materials due to accidents, he said.


Legislative transportation chairmen Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, and Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, agreed that it is good railroads are working on better safety.

“We are stressing it,” Kelly said in an interview. “I believe we are at a good point. I believe the railroads are working with us.”

On the other hand, Dibble was not satisfied with a 70 percent reduction in rail accidents.

“We need to get to nearly zero or at zero,” he said, with a reminder that oil and other hazardous materials are moving in the state daily. “Just having a 70 percent reduction in accidents is not enough. ... Just having one accident may be catastrophic.”

A joint House-Senate transportation meeting produced more questions than answers Monday, in a large part over how the universally agreed-to need to increase transportation spending would be funded.

Kelly and Dibble said they hope a House-Senate conference committee resumes its work immediately after lawmakers return to session on March 8. The committee would develop a plan from very different bills the House and Senate passed last year.

The House passed legislation that mostly would move money from other programs to transportation. The Senate-passed measure would have increased the gasoline tax.

Rep. Ron Erhardt, D-Edina, complained that the Republican-controlled House plan would not provide new transportation funds. “We don’t have any new money here; we are just spending it in different ways.”


Dibble said he would like to constitutionally dedicate transportation funds; otherwise, he said, when budgets are tight transportation would lose money because it is easy to take money from transportation for other uses, such as education and health programs.

Kelly said he does not like the idea of a constitutional amendment, but wants to leave the issue up to legislators. “That is what legislators are here for, to prioritize and to budget.”

Transportation experts say billions of dollars are needed over the next few years to bring Minnesota’s roads, bridges and other aspects of transportation to where they need to be.

Like many transportation meetings, much of the discussion Monday revolved around rail safety, particularly oil trains that carry North Dakota crude oil across Minnesota.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials told the committees that 2,219 defects were found when safety inspectors checked railroads last year, 12 of which were deemed serious. However, Tim Spencer of MnDOT could not answer committee members’ questions about what constituted a serious safety violation other than it “needs to be addressed immediately.”

Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said he is concerned about that number and wants to know details, including if any of the safety issues were on tracks or trains hauling oil or ethanol.

MnDOT also could not answer Hornstein’s questions about a recent vegetable oil spill from a train into the Mississippi River in extreme southeastern Minnesota.

Spencer told lawmakers that MnDOT just completed hiring and training the final one of four new railroad inspectors, hired with money the Legislature ordered collected from railroads. The new funds provided for two track inspectors, one to enforce hazardous materials transportation and one to check rail cars, locomotives, wheels and brakes.

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