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Sinner: Form ideas to prevent another Casselton

First, for what it’s worth, the frequency rate for rail accidents is down about 80 percent since 1980. Granted, one accident is one too many, especially with hazardous commodities, but BNSF Railway and the rest of the rail industry have put a lot of effort and funding into improving safety, and with some pretty good results.

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George B. Sinner

However, last week’s train derailment that caused the evacuation of my hometown of Casselton where many Sinners still live, stirred my interest in the regulation of our rail industry. And, after some research, I have discovered that the growth of transporting oil by rail has been largely unregulated. This most recent accident and others (Lac Magentic, Quebec) have proven that Bakken oil is highly explosive and must be subject to special handling.

Though the shipping of oil by shuttle trains began more than five years ago, the regulations governing these shipments of volatile and explosive materials have remained substantially unchanged for decades.

The only current restrictions on these trains are that there must be one “buffer” car between the engine and any car carrying “flammable” material, and that there be at least six buffer cars between the last “flammable” material carrying car and the caboose. I believe the railroads stopped using cabooses in the 1980s which tells us our regulators have not at all kept up with the changes in this industry.

And after reading the suggestions by concerned leaders from BNSF and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, I concluded that a few other ideas to protect our citizens and communities should be advanced. They are:

-- Promote the construction of underground pipelines that are proven to be much safer than “above” ground conduits for transporting “flammable” materials.

-- Require all train cars carrying “flammable” materials be upgraded to at least the 2011 standards or better. As far back as 1991, the US Transportation Safety Board cited the DOT-111 cars (those used in all these accidents) as “inadequate” to safely transport hazardous materials such as crude and ethanol.

-- Require “automatic” and “remote” unhooking devices on all cars carrying “flammable” materials.

-- Require the inspection of all trains prior to the departure from their origination and at every point where there is a crew change.

-- Require the pre-notification of all certain-sized communities of every train transporting “flammable” materials at least 12 hours in advance.

-- Require that Emergency Response Assistance Plans for each county and city that these materials pass through on the routes.

-- Require all trains carrying “flammable” materials reduce their speeds to 25 mph through all communities.

-- Require that all passing trains be required to reduce their speed to 25 mph during the time that they are passing a train carrying “flammable” materials.

-- Hold hearings in affected communities asking for input from local citizens and government officials.

-- Provide incentives for the construction of by-pass rail routes around communities.

I believe that we can safely and efficiently transport our crude oil to the point of processing. However, it must be done with great care and persistent monitoring.

We cannot minimize the dangers so we must deal with them immediately. Federal and state leaders now must act swiftly to protect our communities and residents from what has proven to be an impending disaster.

Sinner is a North Dakota state senator from Fargo who represents District 46. Email him at He is the son of former North Dakota governor George Sinner.