The state’s railway inspection program has logged another two years and another 5,662 defects and violations, according to a report issued by the Public Service Commission on the 2017-19 biennium.
Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, who heads the rail portfolio and made the program one of her campaign platforms, said the program created in 2015 as a pilot has helped to correct thousands of problems since its inception that could have led to serious accidents.
“Our inspectors have found issues with rail car wheels, brake systems, axles, track joints, track gauge and geometry, and other problems that pose safety hazards and need to be addressed,” Fedorchak said in a media release.
The state’s program has two inspectors, each of whom focus on two different areas. One looks at the track and the other looks at motor power and equipment.
These are the two areas that contribute to the largest number of and the severity of railway accidents in North Dakota.
The mechanical inspector looked at 18,163 cars, finding 3,319 defects, which are problems that could become serious if not addressed, and 46 violations, which are problems that require immediate attention.
Violations can trigger compliance strategies including reduced speeds, taking equipment out of service, and fines.
The track inspector looked at 7,835 units of railway track, where a unit is 1 mile of track, a switch or turnout, and/or a single derail, and found 2,299 defects and 16 violations. North Dakota overall has more than 3,000 miles of track, as well as short line locomotives and rolling stock. Some of these miles pass through Williston’s city limits, some of which would be oil trains carrying Bakken crude.
The safety inspection program was begun after a series of derailment of Bakken crude caused explosions, including one west of Casselton in 2014.
A number of residents of the small town voluntarily evacuated the town as a result.
Commission Chairman Brian Kroshus said in a media release that the program has proven itself invaluable to the state.
“Federal inspectors are spread thin, supporting the need for additional oversight at the state level,” he said. “As economic activity in North Dakota increases, particularly in the energy sector, higher volumes of hazardous material move daily on rail lines passing through communities across our state. Having additional personnel on the ground to enhance public safety is critical.”
The state’s railway program was approved in 2015 and extended for two years by the legislature in 2019. It is funded by an existing diesel fuel tax that the railroads pay, a portion of which is dedicated to safety improvements.
“This program has proven to be an extraordinarily effective use of this devoted rail safety money,” Commissioner Randy Christmann said in a media release.
Both of the inspectors hired for the program are hired by and entirely accountable to the Public Service Commission, but they are trained by the Federal Railroad Administration.
FRA officials have said they do not reduce the number of the agency’s own inspections in states that have their own inspection program, but they do work in concert with them to strengthen oversight of the railway transportation system.
Each inspector is required to inspect to federal safety standards and has the same enforcement authority and tools as federal inspectors.