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Cass County leads N.D. in derailments: County official says Casselton incident warrants ‘digging deeper’ into causes of train accidents

CASSELTON – While they’ve never experienced a train disaster of the magnitude seen in Monday’s fiery crash near here, Cass County residents are no strangers to train derailments.

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The county led North Dakota with 30 train derailments from January 2000 through October 2013, and nearly half of the county’s 37 overall train accidents were caused by track defects, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.

In Ward County, where a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed and spewed a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia on Jan. 18, 2002, killing one person and injuring hundreds in Minot, there were three more train accidents overall but fewer derailments, with 27 recorded by the FRA.

Of the 37 train accidents in Cass County, 17 were blamed on track defects, 11 on equipment defects and nine on human factors.

Across the Red River in Clay County, Minn., 41 train accidents happened during the same time period, including 27 derailments. Only Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties had more train accidents.

The Fargo-Moorhead metro area is a transportation hub with a lot of railroad miles and North Dakota’s most populous county, so it’s not surprising that Cass County would lead the state in derailments, county Emergency Manager Dave Rogness said.

Still, County Commissioner Darrell Vanyo said an incident the magnitude of Monday’s derailment and collision of two Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway trains near Casselton “warrants maybe someone digging deeper” into the causes of the accidents.

“If it’s simply the result of more miles, heavier concentration of trains, then that’s understandable,” he said. “But if it’s something else, then we really need to try to resolve that.”

Vanyo called the 17 derailments blamed on track defects “a startling number.

“It certainly would cause me to want to hear from people from the railroads as to what are you doing in that regard,” he said.

Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said Monday’s accident was the fourth – and worst – derailment on that stretch of track in the last decade or so. He said the ground might be great for farming, but he speculated that it’s too soft to support heavy freight traffic, leading to frequent problems.

“They fix it up, they do their maintenance,” McConnell said of BNSF. “There's just so much traffic in it.”

“With that kind of traffic, there are going to be accidents. Evidently, they're pretty bad accidents,” he said.

BNSF officials did not respond to messages left by phone and email Tuesday seeking comment for this article. A Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said the agency did not have anyone available for interviews Tuesday.

On its website, BNSF reported that a westbound grain train with 112 cars derailed at about 2:10 p.m. Monday about one mile west of Casselton, hitting an eastbound 106-car train carrying crude oil on an adjacent track and causing it to derail, as well. An estimated 21 cars caught fire, some exploding and sending huge fireballs into the blue sky.

While derailments aren’t rare, releases of hazardous materials from derailed train cars happen infrequently in North Dakota, statistics show.

From January 2000 to October 2013, the Federal Railroad Administration recorded 71 derailments involving hazardous materials in North Dakota, six of them in Cass County.

Only three of the 71 derailments involved releases of hazardous materials, including a Dec. 7, 2008, incident in which a westbound BNSF train derailed while rounding a curve near the Cass County city of Page. Thirty-seven cars and two locomotives derailed. One nearby resident who had to evacuate reported seeing a large fireball as a car full of methane gas exploded.

Rogness said most derailments in Cass County involve grain cars, and the county has been “pretty fortunate” to avoid major train accidents.

“The most recent years, we haven’t had a lot of them. Certainly in the metro area we’ve been free of them. And I think that’s probably as a result of a pretty good maintenance track record from (BNSF) and others within the metro area here,” he said.

 Reporter Kyle Potter contributed to this article.

Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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