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Senate Panel Gets Earful Over Oil Train Concerns

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- If you live or work anywhere near railroad tracks in Minnesota, you've no doubt seen the increase in freight traffic. Specifically, large unit trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

After a number of recent derailments, including spills and explosions, a panel headed by Minnesota Senator Al Franken convened in Minneapolis Wednesday to hear ideas for preventing and preparing for such disasters. The goal is to give first responders a better chance to keep their communities safe in the event of a large-scale disaster.

Oil train traffic has tailed off slightly with the downturn in oil prices, but it's certain to return. At the peak of oil transport, more than 20 million gallons of crude oil passed through Minnesota each day. Roughly, some 40-unit trains per week.

First responders say that being prepared for potential disaster is key to staying safe.

In a crowded Minneapolis Fire Museum, just yards from a passing oil train, lawmakers, first responders and neighborhood advocates spoke for more than an hour.

"We've seen some pretty spectacular explosions," Sen. Al Franken told the crowd as he opened discussion.

Preventing disasters like the one that killed 47 people in a Quebec oil explosion in 2013 is fueling discussion. It's why increased oil shipments are a big concern for those living near tracks.

"We're in the 100 foot blast zone, my house and 60 townhouse residents are going to be toast if there's an explosion," Minneapolis resident Catherine Dorr said.

Preparing for and preventing disaster is what Senator Franken and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin hope to learn.

In the hour-long discussion, city leaders and first responders spoke of the need for better training and safety plans.

"We go to 5,000 calls a year," Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper said.

Chief Piper says increased train traffic has caused serious delays for first responders rushing to emergencies. The city's average response time without having to stop at railroad crossings is about four minutes. That has been seriously and dangerously compromised when slow moving or staging trains blocks the city's major rail crossings.

"We have numerous examples on police, fire and medical calls where they can't get there in a timely manner. Instead of four minutes we're at 17 and 11, it just doesn't go well for us," Piper said.

What's needed most are bridges or underpasses to replace the at-grade rail crossings. However, just replacing a major crossing at Hanson Boulevard is expected to cost more than $25 million.

In northeast Minneapolis, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad is extending an existing set of tracks to help ease rail congestion.  But to do that it has to build a large retaining wall that will push the limits of the rail right-of-way. Neighbors worry about trains getting even closer to their homes.

"We've been lucky here in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin that we've not seen that kind of fatalities, but we don't want this to be all about luck," Sen. Franken said.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe expects to spend $326 million this year on track improvements and maintenance.

Getting oil and freight to destinations more safely and efficiently should help minimize disruptions and potential danger.

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