CASSELTON, N.D. – At nearly the same site of last week’s fiery train crash here – and nine years earlier to the day – another train ran off the rails in Casselton.
Thirty-two cars derailed Dec. 30, 2004, after a car’s brake seized and burnt out, spilling coal where oil cars exploded last week.
Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell was right that last week’s crash wasn’t the town’s first brush with a train derailment – it was the fourth in less than a decade. Including the most recent wreck, three occurred in about a half-mile span, according to accident records from the Federal Railroad Administration. A fourth train derailed two miles away.
An eastbound train hauling Bakken crude collided with a derailed soybean train heading west at about 2:15 p.m. last Monday. As crews tried to get the fire under control, McConnell guessed that the soft ground nearby couldn’t handle heavy train traffic, leading to continuous track problems in the area, which he suggested BNSF Railway may not have been able to maintain properly due to increasingly heavy traffic.
National Transportation Safety Board officials said last week that preliminary evidence suggests the train derailed near a mechanical switch in the rails. FRA records show the 2004 crash happened near the same point, though it was later determined to be caused by a car defect.
But the two other derailments since then were caused by track issues, according to FRA records. Heat warped a section of rail in May 2005, pushing a train off the tracks and injuring two BNSF workers driving alongside in a truck. FRA records fault missing or defective crossties for a derailment of 19 cars in September 2009.
Last week’s crash was the first derailment near Casselton since that crash, and the first to spill oil or other hazardous materials.
The NTSB is investigating the incident, which caused no injuries but sent a thick cloud of black smoke over Casselton and put the small town on front pages and newscasts across North America.
An answer to what caused the crash is still months away. NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said accident probes generally take 12 to 18 months. Investigators haven’t yet examined the area’s track record of accidents, Knudson said, but they’ll eventually look “to see if we see any trends emerging.”
In an emailed response to questions, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the NTSB’s investigation, once complete, will help the company understand what happened last week, and how. She pointed to the $220 million in rail upgrades and repairs the company made in North Dakota last year.
Asked whether the area’s history of train derailments was evidence, as McConnell suggested, of persistent problems, McBeth said: “The previous incidents in the area have had unique causes that have ranged from mechanical to track causes.”
The recent crash in Casselton has called attention to concerns about the safety of shipping oil by rail, triggering mentions of the July 6 train wreck in Quebec that killed 47. Days after the Casselton wreck, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert warning that crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region may be more volatile than traditional heavy crude.
And the Casselton crash came as North Dakota is leaning more and more on the state’s rail network to move oil. The state’s top oil regulator, Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms, in December projected that up to 90 percent of the state’s crude would move out of North Dakota by train this year – up from 70 percent in 2013.
North Dakota is the nation’s No. 2 oil-producing state behind Texas, with the state expected to pump out more than 1 million barrels a day sometime this year.
McConnell, like other local and statewide officials, said the answer to what he sees as a growing question of safety is clear: Build more pipelines.
“Realistically, pipelines take a long time to build,” the mayor conceded. “They’re not going to stop pumping oil. They’re going to really have to step up their safety programs (on railroads).”
McBeth called railroads “one of the safest ways to transport crude oil and hazardous materials.” She said BNSF has reduced the number of train accidents that release hazardous materials by 91 percent since 1980, while also decreasing train accident and employee injury rates.
McConnell acknowledged he doesn’t have definitive answers for what’s behind the train accidents in his town.
“I just know that if they want to reap the rewards of hauling all this oil, they have to make sure they’ve got everything safe,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re just not going to be able to bring this oil through these towns. It isn’t just my town.”