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Officials Say Rail Safety Has Improved, Though Some Are Still Skeptical

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Railroad officials in Minnesota told state lawmakers today they significantly improved their safety records in 2015.

That's after widespread complaints from the Minnesota legislature about increased oil train traffic, and danger from possible derailments and explosions.

Thousands of rail cars carrying highly flammable North Dakota crude oil pass through Minnesota every day. But after protest from local communities and the state about possible danger, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) -- the largest oil carrier -- says it has spent $326 million dollars to make the rails safer.

"Those problems have been largely resolved because we have in fact spent a lot of money over the last couple of years on capacity in Minnesota," said Brian Sweeney, legal counsel for BNSF.

BNSF says derailments are down from 45 in 2014 to 24 through November of 2015, and that grade crossing collisions are down from 56 in 2014, and 35 through November of '15.

The railroad says it has installed new braking systems to automatically stop, or slow a train. There's now a smart phone app, as well, for local officials to tell them in an emergency exactly what the train cars are carrying.

But some say it's not enough.

"Absolutely not," said Jeremy Chipps, a La Crescent resident who is a member of a southern Minnesota environmental group.

Chipps says safety improvements didn't help when a train derailed in Brownsville several months ago, and says his sourhern Minnesota community is getting more dangerous oil traffic, not less.

"Now it's coming coming closer to us, just 10 minutes south of La Crescent," Chipps said. "Red Wing, Winona and all those cities -- we're becoming an energy transportation zone."

The ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee says there are still major railroad safety concerns, and and dangerous oil train loads.

"That has to be addressed. That has to be dealt with," Rep. Frank Hornstein, (D) Minneapolis, said. "We still don't have a full phase out of the most dangerous tanker cars, and that has to be accelerated."

Governor Dayton is proposing $129 million for rail safety, including three major grade separations, new warning systems at highway crossings, and more money to train first responders.

The state has set up four emergency command centers around the state, and Governor Dayton is proposing $3.5 million dollars this year to create a an emergency training center at Camp Ripley.

The Minnesota Legislature meets for its 2016 regular session begins March 8.

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