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Runaway Train: Minnesota's Aging Rails

November 21, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Although few Minnesotans have noticed, the I-35W freeway bridge in Minneapolis was not the only large span to collapse in our state this year. At least two railroad trestles have tumbled into waters below since March, bringing new urgency to a push for increased safety inspections of aging railway infrastructure.

Fortunately, no one was injured in the failures of railroad bridges March 23 at Carver and Aug. 20 at Minnesota City.

In the earlier incident, several freight cars carrying sugar plunged into a Minnesota River slough when an old wooden trestle along the Union Pacific Railroad collapsed. "Two train workers are lucky to be alive today," said Phillip Qualy, Minnesota legislative director for the United Transportation Union, which represents 1,200 railroad workers in the state.

At Minnesota City, crew members halted two Canadian Pacific freight trains rather than attempt to cross a flood-washed span minutes before the bridge fell into a creek. "The decision in the end to wait and not cross the bridge probably saved our lives and the company's equipment," conductor Jack Wilz reported afterward.

Meanwhile, faulty track led to two major Burlington Northern Santa Fe derailments, in June near Hibbing and in July near Lake Park, Qualy said. Minnesotans "have been fortunate that no hazardous materials have been involved," he added.

So far, however, none of these warning signals has been effectively heeded by state policymakers. In May, a compromise bill to reestablish state railway inspections and require safer trackside walkways for railroad workers stalled at the Legislature under opposition from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the railroads.

Efforts to revive the measure in the September special legislative session also failed.

 The bill would have authorized one MnDOT inspector to supplement the work of federal inspectors in checking the safety of railroad bridges, track and grade crossings across Minnesota and ordering corrective actions when needed. At least 28 other states employ 165 such inspectors, paid for through assessments on the railroads.

The measure has the backing of federal railroad regulators, who pledge that the addition of state inspections would not bring a reduction in federal efforts.

"If the State of Minnesota chooses to hire a rail safety inspector, Minnesota will realize a net gain the in the number of safety inspections conducted in the state," Jo Strang, the Federal Railroad Administration's associated administrator for safety, wrote in March.

She added: "There are compelling reasons to enhance current rail safety inspections levels. The increase in rail tonnage and the stress of rail car axle loadings is resulting in accelerated track deterioration and a decreased overall life expectancy for the roadbed and individual parts of the track structure."

There are other benefits of state rail inspection programs, she said.

State inspectors can be "an effective liaison with the railroad industry to address complaints by the community regarding train noise, train speed, blocked crossings, unkempt right-of-way and signal failures," she wrote.

They can even help guard against terrorism by "informing railroad personnel or local law enforcement of persons not authorized to be on railroad property," she said.

Union leader Qualy said the bill would make railroad workers safer, enhance their productivity and bring significant financial saving to the railroads. "More importantly," he added, it would "protect the safety and security of the citizens of this state from railroad accidents and the catastrophic results that can occur to our unknowing public."

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