Three years later, federal investigation of ND oil train blast coming to an end

CASSELTON, N.D. -- It's been three years since a train derailment near here triggered an explosion that sent a massive fireball into the sky, highlighting the dangers of moving crude oil by rail.

Oil tanker cars move along the railroad
Oil tanker cars move along the railroad past the charred remains from the December oil car derailment and explosion on the west side of Casselton. David Samson / The Forum

CASSELTON, N.D. - It's been three years since a train derailment near here triggered an explosion that sent a massive fireball into the sky, highlighting the dangers of moving crude oil by rail.

In that time, the National Transportation Safety Board has been investigating the Dec. 30, 2013, crash but has not released a final report on what caused it.

The investigation is the NTSB's fourth-longest ongoing inquiry, and it's the longest one not involving an airplane, according to the agency, which is charged with investigating transportation accidents and making safety recommendations.

However, the wait shouldn't be much longer.

NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said investigators are in the report-writing stage and their final version should be released sometime between January and March. Weiss acknowledged that it's been a long investigation, but he said there's a reason for the delay.


"We're using the Casselton accident and report as a vehicle to look at other train safety features, such as electronic-controlled braking and the difference between the DOT-111s and the CPC-1232 cars," both of which can haul oil, he said. "This is a larger issue as opposed to just the investigation of the actual event itself."

Along with safety recommendations, the final report will contain an analysis of the crash and a formal finding of its probable cause, Weiss said.

The crash involved two BNSF trains a half mile west of Casselton. An eastbound oil train collided with a derailed westbound grain train. More than a dozen oil cars caught fire and exploded, belching a plume of thick black smoke into the air. The blast prompted an evacuation of about 1,400 Casselton residents, none of whom were injured.

Since shortly after the crash, NTSB investigators have focused on a grain rail car's broken axle that was found in the wreckage. In an April 2014 letter sent to the Association of American Railroads, the NTSB called for more thorough testing of rail car axles, indicating that the agency believes the broken axle may have caused the crash.

As the NTSB's investigation has dragged on, BNSF has not been waiting to make systemwide safety improvements, said railroad spokeswoman Amy McBeth. BNSF has increased track inspections, reduced train speeds and replaced track around Casselton, she said.

The engineer and conductor of the oil train both sued BNSF, alleging that the railroad had negligent safety practices and that the crash left them both with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Conductor Peter Riepl reached a confidential settlement with the railroad in July, said his attorney, Michael Tello. The lawsuit of engineer Bryan Thompson is still pending, federal court records show.

In a legal response to Thompson's suit, BNSF denied any negligence. Both men were offered different jobs with the railroad, but neither returned to work, McBeth said.


The crash, which garnered national media attention, fueled a discussion about the risks of hauling crude oil by rail. About a month after the crash, the NTSB urged federal regulators to step up safety measures for crude-by-rail shipments. In April 2015, the agency released nearly 1,800 documents containing facts about the crash, but no analysis or conclusions.

Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean has said a final report wouldn't hurt, but that he has all the answers he needs. McLean said he's been pleased by the safety improvements since the crash.

Casselton Mayor Lee Anderson said he expected to receive the final report six months after the crash. He said he would love to read it, but doesn't know whether it would make much difference for his town.

Nearly a year after the fiery crash, there was another derailment just west of Casselton in November 2014 that involved a train hauling lumber and another train pulling empty oil cars. A broken rail caused the accident, BNSF said.

"Most people don't remember that because it was not eventful," the mayor said. "Nothing blew up."

Casselton train derailment
National Transportation Safety Board board member Robert Sumwalt views damaged rail cars on scene of BNSF train accident in Casselton, N.D. Photo: National Transportation Safety Board (NOTE FILE MAY NOT BE LARGE ENOUGH FOR PRINT)

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