Train derailment puts Bakken crude, railway safety in spotlight

By Luke Geiver | January 08, 2014

North Dakota’s political leaders have met with representatives from BNSF to discuss railway safety. Following the late December train derailment of a grain train and a crude oil train near Casselton, N.D., Senators Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven, along with Governor Jack Dalrymple, traveled to Houston. The derailment of a grain train caused a collision with an oil train carrying Bakken crude, resulting in a massive crude-infused explosion and fire that drew national media attention. The National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the crash site immediately after the collision and began an investigation.

The state needs to work with the NTSB, industry and leaders to get to the root cause of the derailment, Hoeven said following the meeting with BNSF, the railway company operating the line near Casselton. “We also need to rigorously review ways that shipping petroleum products by rail can be improved for safety. For instance, it will be important to identify which products can be shipped in which railcars for maximum safety until newer cars come online,” he said, adding that, “at the same time, we must advance long-overdue rules for building new tankers with enhanced safety features as soon as possible.”

Dalrymple spoke with BNSF Chairman Matt Rose on the operational protocols used for trains passing one another through populated areas while carrying hazardous materials. Heitkamp stated before her visit with BNSF that she would press the railway company to do everything possible to clean up the spill site.

On January 2, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert to notify the general public, emergency responders and shippers and carriers that Bakken crude may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. The same day, the Association of American Railroads issued a statement on the PHMSA’s statement. “We are pleased that PHMSA today called for heightened vigilance and attention to the proper labeling of crude oil moving in tank cars. It’s critical that railroad employees and community emergency personnel know how to handle or respond in the event of an accident,” AAR said.

In November, the AAR issued a call for the retrofit or phase out of railcars that move flammable liquids. For more on the AAR’s statement, click here.

The NTSB has left North Dakota to finish its investigation of the train derailment. Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman, delivered a media briefing before the NTSB team left its field investigation. “We are in the process of developing a detailed timeline of the accident sequence,” he said. To date, the NTSB knows the following: the grain train was traveling at 28 mph when it derailed at a switch point on the rail; no anomalies were found on the railroad signals placed alongside the tracks; event recorders from the crash may not be retrievable; a broken axle from one of the trains has been found and will be examined further based on the axle’s identification numbers that could match either train; the crash happened less than one minute after the derailment; roughly 18 railcars derailed; there is no oil on the ground following BNSF’s fast, efficient clean-up efforts; if the crude product was the same product that shipping records indicated, the railcar and the crude was properly classified.

The NTSB is now reviewing interviews with field staff and railcar teams involved with the crash. The investigation will also review shipping records. The crude oil in the rail cars was classified as UN1267, a number that indicates a flammable liquid that is petroleum crude oil. It was also considered a class 3 liquid, a number that indicates the lowest flashpoint out of three possible classification’s for flash points, according to Sumwalt.