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Federal agency drops proposed two-person train crew rule

The top fittings are shown from a charred oil tanker car in the wreckage of a train derailment and fire that occurred near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013. Forum file photo1 / 2
A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this photograph Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. Forum file photo2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Federal rail authorities have decided that railroad car explosions such as the 2013 ones in North Dakota and Quebec do not prove that requiring two people to be aboard oil-carrying trains would make freights safer.

So the Federal Railroad Administration announced it is withdrawing a proposed Obama administration rule that would require two people aboard freight trains.

A Thursday, May 23, statement from the FRA said that “no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely at this time.”

Officials studied a Casselton, N.D., oil train explosion and train derailment, as well as an oil train blast that killed 75 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. No one was injured in the North Dakota incident.

The FRA reported a review showed there was no proof that a one-person crew would be less safe than two-person crews that were on the trains.

There have been several other oil train and ethanol fuel derailments, including in Virginia, Illinois and Montana. Also, crude oil spills have been reported, including near Red Wing, Minn.

Railroad worker unions were critical of the federal decision while rail companies praised it.

Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said rail companies’ practice is to crew trains with two people and that may not change even with the federal decision.

The December 2013 North Dakota wreck involved an oil train and a grain train that had derailed earlier. The two North Dakota trains were operating on different radio frequencies and engineers had no idea they were on the same track.

Eighteen oil-filled cars were punctured, many exploding into fireballs. About 400,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, much of it burning.

Federal officials have mandated safer rail cars and made other changes to improve safety. But the two-person crew rule had not begun before the Trump administration scuttled it.

Hornstein, the Minnesota Legislature’s most outspoken rail safety proponent, agrees with the Obama administration proposal.

“It is a step backward for safety,” he said about federal officials dropping the rule.

In the Casselton crash, Hornstein said, one crew member detached some cars, perhaps preventing more damage. That may not have been possible with a one-person crew, he added.

For years, train staffing has been between railroads and unions representing employees.

Then-U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., testified at a federal public hearing on the crew issue that “the people she represented are concerned about safety and they want to know that their government is doing everything possible from a regulatory standpoint to keep the movement of oil and other hazardous materials safe,” the FRA report stated.

The senator, who lost a re-election bid last year, said she supported increased staffing because North Dakota rail workers told her having two crew members is “essential for their safety and the public’s safety.”

Then-U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., also backed the rule.

In its report, the administration says that after five meetings a working group “was unable to reach consensus on any recommendation or identify conclusive, statistical data to suggest whether there is a safety benefit or detriment from crew redundancy.”

The rail administration received nearly 1,600 comments on the topic, most from current or former rail workers who favored two-person crews.

Railroads and their supporters provided 39 comments, the FRA said, saying that federal regulation is not needed. Among reasons for the opposition was the cost of requiring two-person crews and a lack of proof that two people are better than one.

After reviewing the Casselton accident, the FRA reported that it “believes that the same type of positive post-accident mitigating actions were achievable with: (1) fewer than two crewmembers on the BNSF grain train involved in the accident and (2) a well-planned, post-accident protocol that quickly brings railroad employees to the scene of an accident.”

The FRA said that while the BNSF Railway Co. crew performed well, “potentially saving each other’s lives, it is possible that one properly trained crewmember, technology and/or additional railroad emergency planning could have achieved similar mitigating actions.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.