Rail safety bill approved by Minnesota Senate committee

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A rail and pipeline safety bill passed the Minnesota Transportation Committee on Friday and is likely to be included in the omnibus transportation bill at the end of the legislative session.

The bill will increase the required “tabletop” and in-person safety exercises between local emergency management officials and railroad and pipeline companies. It will also add two more inspectors working in Minnesota in addition to the four currently on the job.

Friday’s committee session comes on the heels of a train derailment in Raymond, Minnesota, that temporarily forced residents to evacuate their homes on Thursday.

“The incident that happened in Kandiyohi County yesterday … this is the kind of thing that keeps myself and other emergency managers up at night,” said Gabe Tweten of the Clay County Emergency Management Office in testimony to the committee. “It is definitely something I feel we may be undertrained on and don’t work closely enough with our railways.”

Sen. Robert Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, authored the bill aimed at making railroads and pipelines safer in Minnesota.

“Railroads are three to four times more fuel efficient than trucks,” he told the committee. “A single freight train can replace several hundred trucks — but when something goes wrong, that can be like several hundred trucks having a crash.”

Kupec says federal Department of Transportation statistics indicate there were 1,475 train derailments between 2005 and 2021. He says the Federal Railway Administration shows 344 derailments in Minnesota between 2012 and 2022.

A spokeswoman for the Citizens Acting for Rail Safety says they welcome anything to reduce the threat from derailments. “They are predictable and anticipated. So anything we can do around prevention is greatly needed,” Claire Ruebeck testified.

Kupec says it’s just a matter of time before there’s a major derailment in a highly-populated area in Minnesota.

“Should something go wrong in one of these heavily populated areas having the proper information in how to respond and have timely communication with railroad officials could be the difference between an accident and a disaster,” he said.

Raymond residents are back at home after being temporarily evacuated Thursday, and a group of Congressional leaders, including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith toured the derailment site Friday morning.

The incident in Raymond highlights how one incident can have widespread impacts.

Railroad safety has been in the spotlight nationally ever since a fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train near Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. Roughly half of that town had to be evacuated after officials decided to release and burn toxic chemicals. Although state and federal officials insist no harmful chemicals have been found in the air or water there, residents remain uneasy.

Among major derailments in Minnesota in recent years, there was a 2021 derailment on the edge of Goose Lake near Albert Lea, where two Union Pacific cars spilled hydrochloric acid. In 2017, train cars carrying liquid petroleum in cars were punctured in Ellendale, causing nearly 700 people to be evacuated.

RELATED: Looking at past train derailments after Thursday’s incident in Raymond