North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak has outlined a proposal for a state-run rail safety program to increase oversight of North Dakota rail operations. The program is included in the agency's budget request submitted last week to the governor.
Currently, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has sole responsibility for rail safety in North Dakota. If approved and funded by the legislature, the state rail safety program will supplement efforts by the FRA.
The volume of rail traffic in North Dakota increased nearly 233 percent between 2000 and 2012. At the same time, the type of materials transported has changed from largely non-hazardous products, such as coal and grain, to big volumes of hazardous materials, such as crude oil and ethanol.
“Those are two significant changes that trigger the need for added safety efforts by our state,” Fedorchak said. “Rail transportation is a major engine for our economy and with the growth in agriculture, energy and manufacturing, the railroads promise to increase in importance. The fact is, the feds are stretched too thin and have responded too slowly to this vastly changing industry and it’s time now for the state to step in and assist with this vital work.”
Fedorchak’s plan calls for hiring two new inspectors and a rail safety manager to oversee the program. The total cost of the program will be $1 million per budget period, or about $500,000 per year. The inspectors will focus on two disciplines: track and motor power and equipment. Fedorchak said these areas are the top priority because they currently contribute to the largest number and most severe accidents in North Dakota.
In the past five years, North Dakota has had 56 track-related accidents costing $19 million and 22 equipment-caused accidents resulting in $11.5 million in damages. FRA currently has two track inspectors covering 3,000 miles of North Dakota track, so the state program would increase track inspections by 50 percent.
The ability to focus resources on specific safety-related concerns is a major advantage of a state-run program, Fedorchak said.
The state inspectors will be autonomous and entirely accountable to the Public Service Commission (PSC). At the same time, they will be trained and certified by the FRA and work in partnership with the local and regional federal inspectors. State inspectors inspect to federal safety standards and have the same enforcement authority and tools as federal inspectors. All violations resulting in financial penalties would be filed with a regional FRA specialist and processed by the FRA.
Fedorchak said the state rail inspection program is one component of a larger solution to improving rail safety that includes building more pipelines; improving the safety standards of rail cars with stronger materials, better valves and seals; determining the optimal speed for safe crude-by-rail transport; conditioning the oil to a common standard to make it more uniform for transport and training and equipping emergency personnel for effective response.