Forty to 44 trainloads a week of highly volatile Bakken crude oil come through Detroit Lakes via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail corridor, each one a potential inferno if it derails and explodes.
Train collisions with trucks and cars often cause derailments, so making crossings safer is key to preventing a disaster such as the one that killed 47 people when a parked train rolled downhill and derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013.
That’s why the Minnesota Department of Transportation assessed all rail crossings on routes that carry Bakken oil, and prioritized the potential danger and need for improvements at each one.
The bad news is that the Washington Avenue crossing is the third highest priority crossing in the state, based on population living within a half-mile of the crossing, the number and type of vehicles that use the crossing, the accident history there, and its proximity to emergency services such as the fire hall, police station and hospital, among other factors.
The good news is that the crossing has gates and medians and is already considered as safe as a crossing can be, so no additional improvements are recommended.
When the city implemented a “no-train-horn” policy on the BNSF corridor a few years ago, it was required to implement top-of-the-line safety improvements at the crossings.
Compare that to the Sixth Street N.W. crossing in Perham, which is the second-highest priority crossing in the state. It has gates, but the state is recommending a grade separation (an underpass or an overpass) be built at that site in the long term.
Same goes for the No. 1 priority crossing in the state, the 14th Street S. crossing in Benson. It has gates and cants, but grade separation is recommended.
In Detroit Lakes, the crossings at County Road 54 (the Hidden Hills Road) and the Brandy Lake crossing near Walmart did not make the list of priority crossings.
Both were improved earlier as part of the “whistle-free zone” initiative.
The Canadian Pacific crossing on Legion Road near Snappy Park now has no gates at all, only crossbucks, but gates are set to be installed there in the next few years.
The Canadian Pacific route through Detroit Lakes (including WE Fest) Callaway, Ogema, and Waubun is not considered a Bakken crude route for the purposes of the state study, though trains do carry oil cars on those tracks.
The BNSF crossing on Lake Street N. in Frazee is No. 29 on the state’s list of dangerous crossings. It has gates, but the crossing is listed as “adequate, but improvable” in the state study.
The Fifth Street W. crossing in Frazee is No. 36 on the priority list and the state recommends medians be installed as part of a long-term solution.
The Fourth Street crossing in Audubon is ranked No. 57 on the priority list, but the crossing is considered adequate and no improvements are recommended.
No crossings in Lake Park made the list.
Other crossings on the priority list include several in Wadena, New York Mills, Perham, Glyndon and Dilworth.
Minnesota doesn’t have any control over the type of rail traffic that moves across state lines, but it’s encouraging that it has been as proactive as possible in identifying dangerous crossings and recommending solutions.