AP News

Federal agency releases ND train inspection data


BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Federal railroad inspectors found more than 13,000 track defects on BNSF Railway Co. lines in North Dakota since 2006, and have written 721 violations against the company since 2006, a federal rail safety agency said in a letter released Wednesday.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., asked the Federal Railroad Administration for data following a fiery oil train derailment in eastern North Dakota in December. It happened when a train carrying soybeans derailed and caused a train carrying crude oil to derail near Casselton. The crash caused massive explosions and left a cloud over the Cass County town. Most of Casselton's roughly 2,400 residents agreed to temporarily evacuate due to concerns about unsafe air.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash and is studying what role a broken axle might have played in the derailment of the grain train.

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said in his letter to Heitkamp that there have been four other derailments in nine years in Cass County and that an investigation and safety assessment of the BNSF line in the county is ongoing. He said federal track inspectors have conducted 3,822 track inspections in North Dakota since 2006 and found 13,141 defects.

Szabo's letter did not detail the violations written against BNSF or whether they resulted in fines or other actions. It also did not offer a comparison to the number of inspections conducted or defects detected elsewhere.

FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson would not comment on whether the agency found the number of defects and violations against BNSF extraordinary.

"We'll let you draw your own conclusions," he said.

The number of derailments in North Dakota, however, has decreased about 23 percent since 2003, he said.

BNSF said in a statement that it has its own "robust track inspection program" and "inspects its key routes and busiest track more than twice as frequently as required by the FRA."

"Conditions such as loose bolts and cracked bars are examples of defects often detected and corrected, and both BNSF and the FRA encourage inspectors to document every defect found, even if not a condition that could cause a derailment," the railroad's statement said. "Over the past seven years, FRA audits have yielded a defect rate of less than 1 defect per mile, per year for the 2,300 miles of BNSF track in North Dakota."

Heitkamp said in a statement that she still wants to know from the agency if the county is receiving special attention due to its derailment history.

"It is clear that the Casselton area is in need of increased attention considering the number of derailments around the same area," Heitkamp said. "Folks who live near these tracks have been through a lot, and deserve to know that the rails are under close examination and that FRA is doing everything to make sure North Dakotans aren't at risk."

In his letter to Heitkamp, Szabo promised that his agency "will continue to aggressively monitor the BNSF maintenance program."

The Casselton derailment on Dec. 30 has highlighted worries about shipping crude by rail. It also led to a safety alert from the U.S. Department of Transportation warning about the potential high volatility of crude from western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Oil drillers in North Dakota, the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas, increasingly are using trains to ship crude due to lack of pipelines or to reach more lucrative markets not served by them.

About a dozen mile-long oil trains leave North Dakota daily. Each train typically consists of up to about 100 railcars laden with about 60,000 barrels of crude.

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Follow James MacPherson on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/macphersonja .


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