Minnesota Department of Transportation

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

 

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Crude-by-rail transportation and safety in Minnesota

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  1. Why are there safety concerns about the transport of crude oil on railroads?
  2. Why is crude shipped by rail?
  3. What steps are railroads taking to prevent future explosions?
  4. What percentage of annual U.S. rail shipments contain crude?
  5. Where are these shipments going?
  6. Which railroad companies carry crude shipments in Minnesota?
  7. How much crude travels through Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, by rail each day?
  8. Why are shipments routed through the Twin Cities? Are there known bypasses or detours?
  9. What is Bakken oil? What are its qualities? Do local Minnesota refineries process this oil?
  10. What type of rail car successfully holds crude?
  11. What is MnDOT's role in regulating crude-by-rail activity? Is there a plan to prevent future explosions?
  12. What are the current reporting requirements for hazardous materials like crude?
  13. How safe are the railroads? Do newer rail cars provide safety advantages?
  14. Have rail inspections kept pace with the increasing crude activity? How is the need for inspections determined?
  15. What are the environmental risks of transporting crude by rail?

Why are there safety concerns about the transport of crude oil on railroads?

Railroad hazmat train accidents have decreased by 91 percent since 1980, and crude-by-rail has had no U.S. fatalities since 1990. However, a recent string of crude oil accidents have made the possible risks highly visible. The causes of the accidents have been different in each case and have included human error, equipment failure, and track problems. According to tests by the U.S. Department of Transportation, North Dakota crude has been found to be more volatile than originally thought. According to U.S. railroads and rail car manufacturers, as well as leaders like Warren Buffett, older rail tank cars have some deficiencies and may need upgrades to safely transport the increased production. While new safety standards were adopted by railroads in 2011, regulators have yet to mandate those standards.

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Why is crude shipped by rail?

Crude has been shipped by rail for years. With the rate of oil production outpacing pipeline capacity, railroads are the only other practical alternative, particularly in the Bakken oil field. Railroads also offer immediate capacity and flexible routes to destinations that pipelines can't offer. The Bakken now supplies almost a million barrels of oil per day, with railroads carrying over 700,00 barrels per day.

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What steps are railroads taking to prevent future accidents?

Railroad companies have voluntarily agreed to slow down oil trains in 45 "high-threat urban areas," including the Twin Cities. As of March 1, 2014, US DOT and the railroads have agreed to limit speeds in urban areas to 40 m.p.h. Previous speeds were 50 m.p.h. or more. Further steps include more frequent track and car inspections, stricter operating rules and better hazmat documentation. BNSF in particular is taking steps to build new cars with thicker walls and more quickly retiring older cars. Railroads are cooperating on training upgrades for local responders to meet current needs.

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What percentage of annual U.S. rail shipments contain crude?

Only 5 percent of total rail carload shipments contain crude.

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Where are these shipments going?

The majority of the Bakken oil is shipped from oil fields in North Dakota through Minnesota to various refineries in the Midwest and Eastern seaboard.

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Which railroad companies carry crude shipments in Minnesota?

The BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway originate almost all crude oil shipments from North Dakota's Bakken oil field. The Fort Worth, Tex.-based BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) railroad transports 75 percent of all North Dakota-produced oil.

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How much crude travels through Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, by rail each day?

On average, seven oil-carrying trains pass through Minnesota daily, with as many as six through the Twin Cities. Each train carries 3.3 million gallons of oil among 110 loaded cars.

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Why are shipments routed through the Twin Cities? Are there known bypasses or detours?

Most historic railroad routes centered around the Twin Cities. As a result, the Twin Cities acts as a gateway and there are few other routes that would otherwise be alternatives.

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What is Bakken oil? What are its qualities? Do local Minnesota refineries process this oil?

Oil from the Bakken field is characterized as a "sweet, light" crude, with the same consistency as diesel or jet fuel. The oil comes from deep beds of shale that is extracted through the application of new technology, including directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Bakken oil contains a high percentage of natural gas liquids, which increases its flammability. Minnesota refineries normally do not process Bakken crude, since they are designed to refine heavy sour crude oils such as Canadian tar sand oil.

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What type of rail car is used to transport crude oil?

In 2011, designs for improved U.S. DOT-regulated railroad tank cars were adopted after undergoing thorough safety tests. (Cars manufactured before 2011 were general purpose, non-pressurized tanks that handled a variety of liquids. The railroad and car-building industry had recognized weaknesses in the design of these cars since the 1980s.)

Currently, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Association (PHMA) is in a rulemaking process to adopt private industry standards now in use. It estimates that another 1-2 years of process are needed before the next official government standard is adopted — which may apply to both new construction and retrofits.

Note that the majority of rail cars are owned or leased by shippers, not by rail companies.

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What is MnDOT's role in regulating crude-by-rail activity? Is there a plan to prevent future explosions?

MnDOT's role is limited. The U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered railroad companies to test each batch of cruide for traits such as the percentage of flammable gases trapped in the oil -- and may adopt tougher federal safety standards in the future for track and tank cars.

Gov. Dayton, key state legislators, and the Minnesota Congressional Delegation are actively working to support new federal policy and provide for better local training, inspection, and emergency response.

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What are the current reporting requirements for hazardous materials like crude?

Bakken crude is considered highly flammable and must carry a flammable placard (red diamond) on each car. In addition, the shippers and the railroads must have proper documentation of the crude oil's chemical makeup and hazardous characteristics.

Oil must be properly labeled and reported in order to give emergency responders, police and fire departments the proper information in case of a spill or fire. Haz-mat reporting is primarily under federal jurisdiction.

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How safe are the railroads? Do newer rail cars provide safety advantages?

Approximately 99.9977 percent of all rail hazmat shipments reach destination without incident.

Newer cars are manufactured with stronger steel sheels, designed to stretch before puncturing. On both ends of the car, steel shields act as collision bumpers. Also, loading valves on the top and bottom of each car are better protected and higher-volume pressure relief valves have been installed to prevent tank car ruptures from a buildup of internal pressure.

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Have rail inspections kept pace with the increasing crude activity? How is the need for inspections determined?

Railroads have absorbed major growth in crude oil shipments using existing infrastructure and equipment. The Federal Railroad Administration specifies how many inspections should be done. Because of the risks, however, railroads have increased their own inspections well above required levels.

MnDOT hired three state rail safety inspectors – one dedicated to hazardous materials – to improve freight system safety. State rail inspectors monitor railway alignment and conditions, as well as other structures along the tracks, such as bridges and crossings. These inspectors also review and enforce safety requirements, keep maintenance and repair records and review railroad security.

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What are the environmental risks of transporting crude by rail?

Whether human error or potential for derailments, railroads carry a high degree of risk. Railroads generally experience more accidents than pipelines, but these accidents by comparison are much smaller per incident.

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