Improving Minnesota’s Railroads

Minnesota’s railroads are seeing an unprecedented spike in use and pressure as North Dakota’s oil boom continues. Many of Minnesota’s rail lines are at capacity, and with the freight lines also seeing increased use thanks to agriculture and other commodities, there have been calls for action at the Legislature to relieve this burden. Furthermore, multiple oil train derailments and other hazardous spills have occurred across the country, creating more urgency for legislative actions.

Last year, the Legislature passed measures to help communities respond to potential emergencies related to transporting oil and other hazardous materials through Minnesota. Concerns around congestion were also brought up last fall in a joint hearing of the Senate Transportation, Commerce, and Jobs committees, and the House committee counterparts. Many believe increased oil freight traffic on the rails has led to unintended effects on many industries throughout the state. Minnesota’s agriculture industry has observed higher shipping costs in part because of increased oil rail traffic. The Department of Agriculture estimates that $100 million in revenue was lost by Minnesota corn, soybean, and wheat growers last spring alone. Passenger rail like Amtrak and the North Star Line are experiencing significant service delays and accompanying ridership reductions.

One proposal laid out this year would raise several hundred millions of dollars to begin to address safety and congestion issues. The proposal would replace and support certain rail-grade crossings, help reroute tracks through communities in a safer way, and work to decrease congestion being felt on the lines. This plan would also raise taxes on railroad companies to ensure they are helping to pay for these upgrades. It is essential that work continues to relieve the congestion affecting the state’s commerce and improves safety for communities along the state’s rail lines.

Increasing Crews for Freight Rail Transport

Many of the freight rail trains traveling across the state are currently operated by crews of only one person. As the volume of freight increases on the state’s rails, these crews are responsible for the safe transport of not only commodities, but often hazardous materials including oil. Some people are concerned that one person may not be enough to ensure safe passage for these trains, and by adding a requirement for two-person crews, a second pair of eyes and hands are added to help ensure safe passage.

This language is similar to legislation that was passed in Wisconsin that requires two-person crews, and the Federal Rail Authority announced it was intending to require two-person crews for freight rail carrying crude oil. Legislation of this sort has been introduced in 14 other states concerned with rail safety, and has been passed in Arizona and Wisconsin.

With a second crew member on each train, proponents believe this measure provides one more level of safety and one more level of oversight for these trains.

STATUS: The bill is on the Senate Floor. (S.F. 918)

Expanding Railroad Responsibility 

One piece of legislation heard this year would play a pivotal role in increasing the protections for communities along rail lines. The bill updates statute so that railroad corporations are responsible for damages to every person and private or public entity whose property would be potentially damaged by fire caused by railroads. The fire must be spread or caused by the rolling stock, or the contents of the rolling stock, a spill, tear, discharge, or combustion of train contents.

The second component holds railroads liable for response expenses when a fire or other emergency is caused by a railroad locomotive, a train car, or employees on a railroad right-of-way, operating property, or other property. If a fire department or other emergency responder responds and deems a railroad responsible under this provision, they must give the railroad notice within 60 days.

This bill updates statutes to ensure that the public will be protected for expenses for emergencies caused by railroad operations, like the derailments and explosions that have occurred across the US and Canada.

This bill would add to the railroad safety reforms the Legislature passed last session. The changes were aimed at ensuring communities along the rail lines would be prepared to respond to emergency situations. The rail safety package last year included requiring railroad companies to submit disaster prevention and emergency plans, increased the number of state rail inspectors, codified derailment and spill response times, and provided additional emergency response training for local emergency responders.

STATUS: The bill is on the Senate Floor. (S.F. 1705)

NEXT IN TRANSPORTATION: Crystal and Hennepin County Railroad Legislation

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