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Tanker cars that carry crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota have become part of the freight mix for Burlington Northern Santa Fe going through DL. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

Oil traffic causes BNSF slowdown

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No, it’s not your imagination — there have been more Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains parked idling in the area than there used to be.

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Blame the brutal winter and the oil boom in North Dakota.

BNSF pretty much pioneered use of tanker cars linked together to move Bakken oil. With more than 800,000 barrels a day being shipped out of North Dakota, the railway was already feeling the load.

Add a colder-than-normal winter that forced BNSF to use smaller trains, with a less-efficient use of crewmembers, and the system hasn’t been able to keep up.

“We experienced significant growth in freight volume on our network in 2013,” said Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman.

“The service challenges we have been experiencing are impacting all customers.”

That includes Crystal Sugar in Moorhead, which has had to deal with disruptions in its “just in time” delivery system,  and it has affected deliveries of empty grain cars to farmers and elevators, which are running two to three weeks late, according to the Wall Street Journal.

An average of about 49 trains travel on the double-track rail corridor through Detroit Lakes in a 24-hour period, McBeth said.

“Regarding the trains you are seeing staged in the area, the harsh weather conditions have impacted our service to all customers,” McBeth said. “Extreme cold creates air brake problems for train movement, frozen switches which must be cleared manually, limits train speeds and size as a safety precaution, and even limits how long rail workers can work in the extreme cold before warming up to protect their safety.”

Some trains are idled because they are waiting to get through the intersection of the BNSF and Canadian Pacific lines that meet in Detroit Lakes, but McBeth said there are no plans for any kind of grade separation at that intersection to keep freight traffic moving.

“We are over-sourcing the railroad with additional locomotives, equipment, and people,” she said, “in addition to our record 2013 and 2014 capital investments that increase capacity, to help restore service and handle the growth.”

Earlier this winter, BNSF slowed loaded oil trains to 25 mph while traveling through Detroit Lakes, but now the actual speeds traveled are 30 to 40 miles per hour, McBeth said.

The maximum authorized speed in Detroit Lakes for freight traffic is 60 mph and 75 mph for passenger traffic, she added.

Safety is a big concern at BNSF, she said.

“This year we are spending a record $5 billion on maintenance and expansion of our network, following a record investment of $4 billion in 2013 and an investment of $42 billion in our network since 2000,” McBeth said.

The last two years were the safest years on record for BNSF and the rail industry.

“We have always handled some commodities with extra precaution to further reduce risk,” McBeth said.

For more than 20 years BNSF and the rail industry have operated specially identified ‘key trains,’ which carry certain hazardous materials, with more restrictive operating procedures than required by federal regulation.

After the tragedy in Quebec last summer, in which a runaway oil train derailed and exploded, killing more than 40 people, BNSF and other railroads took the voluntary step of operating trains with 20 or more carloads of hazardous materials, including crude oil, at a self-imposed speed limit of 50 miles per hour or less.

Other steps that are being evaluated include routing protocols to ensure crude is moved on the safest, most secure route, as is already done with hazardous materials such as chlorine.

Railroads don’t own the tank cars used to move hazardous materials.

Customers own them, or lease them from leasing companies. BNSF believes that tougher tank car standards must be implemented and the older DOT-111 tank car phased out.

“We recently issued a request (Request For Proposals) to major railcar manufacturers to submit bids for the construction of 5,000 next generation tank cars to be used for transporting crude oil,” McBeth said.

BNSF also works with local community and state emergency responders to ensure they are prepared to respond if an incident occurs. BNSF has specialized equipment and more than 200 BNSF hazmat responders at locations across its network to address hazmat and crude oil incidents.

This BNSF effort is supported by a network of BNSF contract emergency and environmental responders intended to execute a rapid and well-coordinated response with local agencies.

“BNSF also provides community hazmat response training across our network so that local emergency responders are better prepared for an incident involving rail.  We provide this free training to 3,000 to 4,000 local emergency responders a year across our network,” McBeth said.

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