Senators talk rail safety with transportation administration

The secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation has agreed to travel to North Dakota to talk about rail safety with the oil and rail industries and regulation officials as well as residents of Casselton, Sen. John Hoeven, R.-N.D., said Thursday.

The state’s congressional delegation has been working with various state and federal officials on rail safety issues since a derailment on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway near Casselton on Dec. 30 resulted in cars of crude oil from the Bakken catching fire and exploding.

Sens. Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp, D.-N.D., met with Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration head Cynthia Quarterman Thursday to discuss steps the DOT is taking to improve railway transportation safety and to follow up on a letter Hoeven wrote a year ago asking Quarterman to expedite rules governing construction of new, safer tanker cars.

Hoeven said Foxx indicated that the agencies would soon release guidelines ahead of its new standards for rail car construction.

Quarterman told Hoeven and Heitkamp that the results of tests on samples of crude from the Bakken and from sites in Texas are expected within a couple of weeks. PHMSA is conducting the testing to help determine a standard for rail car construction.

Foxx told the senators that he is working to organize an informational meeting next week with rail executives, shippers and others responsible for rail transportation safety. Combined with the testing results, he said, the agency might be able to provide some guidance regarding the standard for new rail cars. The actual proposed standards would follow later, but the guidance will give car manufacturers information about what to expect.

“I am pushing them to get the new standards out as soon as they can. They indicated they will make it a priority,” Hoeven said. “The focus is on, obviously, anything we can do to prevent derailments and then to make sure that if there is a derailment, that you have the tank cars as safe as possible, making sure the right product is in the right kind of container.”

Hoeven said he expects more information related to future safety rules and the recent derailment will be known by the time of Foxx’s visit to Casselton, which is expected sometime after next week’s meeting.

The National Transportation Safety Board is on site near Casselton, and Hoeven said a report is expected by the end of the month.

Last week, Hoeven and Heitkamp spoke with Matt Rose, head of BNSF Railway, as well as with the National Transportation Safety Board to expedite ways that rail transportation safety can be improved.

Heitkamp on Wednesday called on the Federal Railroad Administration to release information on its inspections of the rail near Casselton, noting that four derailments have occurred in the Casselton area in nine years. Heitkamp and Hoeven also have called on the Federal Railroad Administration to review the track quality near the community.

Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., spoke with Foxx by phone Wednesday, urging him to expedite the release of new rules for rail cars.

“PHMSA has been aware of the need for these rules since at least 2009, and the transportation industry has petitioned for them. It is time for the federal government to complete its rail car standards so the industry has specific manufacturing standards going forward,” Cramer said in a prepared statement.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council welcomed the news that new safety standards for rail tank cars could come within weeks rather than the months previously projected by PHMSA.

“We are pleased to find out these standards may finally be closer to being released so manufacturers can begin production of better, more secure rail cars,” NDPC president Ron Ness said in a prepared statement.