Rail Safety Act of 2023 could mean big changes for ND’s railways and linked industries

A train passing through Bismarck
A train passing through Bismarck(KFYR-TV)
Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 7:03 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - It seems train derailments are occurring more frequently.

In 2002, a train derailment in Minot unleashed ammonia gas across the city. Earlier this year, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, spreading dangerous chemicals. And on March 27, cars went off the tracks in Wyndmere, North Dakota, when a Canadian Pacific train derailed and spilled hazardous materials.

The Rail Safety Act of 2023 is meant to bolster rail safety, but Homeland Security suggests it might not be the best path forward for our state.

Federal Railroad Administration statistics give insight into how large the problem is.

There were 916 derailments reported in 2022, and that’s not to mention mishaps in 2023.

The Rail Safety Act of 2023 appears to be a double-edged sword for industries that rely on the rail system.

It was an event Mike Elm, a long-time Minot resident, will never forget.

“Being trapped for the hours that we were, not being able to get out, not knowing if help was coming. There’s that moment. What do you do for your family? How do you protect them, and how do you survive,” said Elm.

But the derailment in Minot was not an isolated incident, and it’s no secret.

“The railway system is really important to North Dakota. When you look at our ag products to our energy products specifically, they carry a large load, and it’s vital to the economy here,” said Darin Hanson, director of Homeland Security at the Department of Emergency Services.

From farmers who produce crops to oil workers in the Bakken, almost everyone has a stake in the rail safety game.

That’s where the Railway Safety Act of 2023 comes in.

The law would require the Department of Transportation to issue safety regulations for trains: providing advanced notice when a train is carrying hazardous materials, reducing blocked rail crossings, meeting certain weight and length standards and implementing electronic defect detectors.

But it comes at a cost to the rail companies who service our state’s top industries.

“The cost issue is really going to be important to a lot of the stakeholders here. We also don’t want to see any impacts to getting our products to market. But on the flip side of that, there’s definitely some room for improvement on the sensors and the technologies and the data-sharing that’s going to be low cost but high impact,” said Hanson.

Hanson says the state rail system works well but changes would be needed if the legislation passed, like adding technology and the requirement to share hazardous materials information before an accident happens.

“Right now, what we’re getting is a dump truck of data after the fact. What we really need is a wheelbarrow of the right data ahead of time,” said Hanson.

Regardless, he says it’s too soon to know if Governor Doug Burgum would support the legislation.

But for people like Elm, safety is what matters most.

“You could never have enough regulations to control trains carrying chemical and hazardous materials, because you just never know what might happen,” said Elm.

The bill could still change as it works its way through Congress. It still needs to pass in the House then it will head to the Senate. From there, it goes to the President’s desk.