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For North Dakota’s railways and related sectors, the Rail Safety Act of 2023 may bring about significant changes



Bismarck, North Dakota – Derailments of trains appear to be happening increasingly regularly.

A train derailed in Minot in 2002, spewing ammonia gas all over the city. A train derailed earlier this year in East Palestine, Ohio, dispersing hazardous chemicals. And on March 27, a Canadian Pacific train derailed and discharged dangerous goods, causing cars to derail in Wyndmere, North Dakota.

Although Homeland Security believes the Rail Safety Act of 2023 may not be the best course of action for our state, it is intended to improve rail safety.

Statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration shed light on the scope of the issue.

Without including accidents in 2023, there were 916 documented derailments in 2022.

The train Safety Act of 2023 seems to have two negative effects on sectors that depend on the train network.

Mike Elm, a longtime resident of Minot, will never forget it.

“Being trapped for the hours that we were, not being able to get out, not knowing if help was coming. There’s that moment. What do you do for your family? How do you protect them, and how do you survive,” said Elm.

However, it is well known that the disaster in Minot was not an isolated incident.

“The railway system is really important to North Dakota. When you look at our ag products to our energy products specifically, they carry a large load, and it’s vital to the economy here,” said Darin Hanson, director of Homeland Security at the Department of Emergency Services.

Nearly everyone has something to gain or lose from the rail safety game, from crop farmers to oil workers in the Bakken.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 fills that gap.

By following specified weight and length requirements, decreasing blocked rail crossings, adopting electronic flaw detectors, and providing advanced notification when a train is carrying hazardous materials, the law would oblige the Department of Transportation to set safety regulations for trains.

However, it has a price for the train firms that support the major industries in our state.

“The cost issue is really going to be important to a lot of the stakeholders here. We also don’t want to see any impacts to getting our products to market. But on the flip side of that, there’s definitely some room for improvement on the sensors and the technologies and the data-sharing that’s going to be low cost but high impact,” said Hanson.

According to Hanson, the state rail system functions well, but if the legislation were to pass, adjustments would have to be made, such as the addition of technology and the necessity to communicate information about hazardous chemicals before an accident occurs.

“Right now, what we’re getting is a dump truck of data after the fact. What we really need is a wheelbarrow of the right data ahead of time,” said Hanson.

He claims that it is too early to say whether Governor Doug Burgum would approve the measure, though.

But for those like Elm, safety is the most important factor.

“You could never have enough regulations to control trains carrying chemical and hazardous materials, because you just never know what might happen,” said Elm.

As the bill moves through Congress, changes could yet be made. Prior to moving on to the Senate, it must first pass the House. The President’s desk is the next stop after that.