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Fear of oil trains: The future of railroad safety

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Fear of oil trains holds steady in Minnesota as deals for safety plan rumble along Fear of oil trains holds steady in Minnesota as deals for safety plan rumble along
WINONA / ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) -- A recent derailment in North Dakota has legislators here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes even more focused on getting our rails safe. It's a long road ahead as lawmakers work with rail companies on a plan, but for many residents of the state, the clock is ticking.

Five to seven trains of crude oil pass through Minnesota daily, and an estimated 326,000 people live within a half mile of the tracks. One of those people is Jeanne Nelson, whose home is situated directly between the Mississippi River and the train tracks, a recipe for disaster in the case of a derailment. It's stories like hers that have officials trying to make a plan for better safety in our state, and negotiating with the railroads that have no choice but to carry this seriously dangerous commodity.

It's safe to say, Nelson has a very close relationship with the railroads. Her house sits just 25 feet away from them. A distance shorter than the length of a swimming pool, making her vulnerable to the potentially devastating disaster of an oil train explosion like the one in Heimdal, North Dakota.

"This is the pipeline and in a way it's every bit as dangerous because if it derails across the Mississippi River, those cars explode, those cars leak, we'll have a problem," said Nelson.

Thousands of people live close to the tracks, but the number of trains carrying volatile oil has spiked.

"Really it's the volume that changes the game versus, if we had one or two tankers of oil traveling on a train, probably wouldn't be any different than some of the other things," said Kevin Reed of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management division of the Department of Public Safety.

The number is growing. U.S. freight railroad oil transportation is 45 times greater now than in 2008, and each train carries an average of 3 million gallons of explosive oil.

"There's about 300,000 gallons in every train car so if you heat that up, and say it's coming from North Dakota and now it's down by Winona, it's been shaking on those tracks for hundreds of miles," said Reed, which makes it more capable of creating a catastrophe.

It has Minnesota DPS officials spreading the word through emergency training sessions around the state. "You can't wait for the fire department to come and say, 'hey, you need to leave,'" said Reed. "If you see something, hear something funny and you see a big plume of smoke, get your insurance, medication a cell phone whatever you need to get as far away from that as possible."

When asked if she knows what her plan of escape would be in case of emergency, Nelson shakes her head. After asking her township board, she was left without answers. 

Both Goodhue and Wabasha counties have had clinics with DPS. However, Winona County has not. It's a scary thought, considering an oil leak happened along its tracks back in February of last year. Canadian Pacific says it has held multiple sessions with Winona, including sending emergency responders to a school in Pueblo, Colo. for training.

As terrifying as the possibility of an oil train derailment sounds, something else scares Nelson. It's something that could take what's closest to her heart. It's the waiting for trains stalled on the tracks for hours at a time.

"Oh, I've had to wait two, three hours at a time," said Nelson. She holds her breath every time the gates come down, because it's a trap between the river and the tracks, something that could threaten her husband who suffers from severe heart problems. When he has an episode, just seconds could make the difference of life and death. "My main concern is the fact that my husband does have a serious health problem and I have experienced this in the past," said Nelson. "This isn't in the abstract, for me, this is very much a reality."

It's something Nelson has become a crusader for: marking down dates of train blockages, calling Canadian Pacific officials, law enforcement and state legislators, everything she can to prevent the trains from stopping dead in their tracks. It falls seemingly on deaf ears.

"Far too often I have been told that there's nothing that can be done. I do not believe this and I do not accept this," reads one e-mail Nelson sent to a Canadian Pacific representative last fall.

"They're stumped as to what to do," said Nelson. "I have certainly called the railroad many times, and they too are frustrated, quite frankly."

It is a problem that has captured the attention of the state Capitol.

"Trains can be backed up and back up traffic for quite a while and in some areas they actually split towns so that if there's an emergency happening, that they can't get to them," said Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing.

Lawmakers and the governor are hammering out a $300 million rail crossing improvement plan for the next ten years. Winona has six locations on this list, more than any other city, but Homer is not one of them.

It is difficult to grapple with the two headed monster of both preventing rail crossing blockages and train derailments, made all the more real by incidents in North Dakota, Illinois, even here at home.

"The unfortunate part is we don't know where a derailment is going to happen,"said Kelly. "If we knew, of course that's where we would put our resources."

It's something that will take time to fix, but hundreds of thousands of eyes are watching the clock tick as more trains grace our tracks. "It's one of those things you see a train everyday but you don't really notice it until you see 100 black tank cars," said Reed.

However, you can bet people like Jeanne Nelson won't just let the need for change go by, she'll make sure that talks don't get off the rails. "I like to decide what I'm going to let bother me, and my blocked railroad crossing is the thing that bothers me, but I think there is a solution to it," said Nelson.

Representative Kelly tells us railroads will spend a combined $500 million in the state of Minnesota alone in upgrades, in new tracks, and improvements. The Legislature has approved two more emergency response teams between St. Paul and Fargo and put $5 million in the rail safety account. As for that 10-year plan, lawmakers were unable to agree on the investment as the session came to an end Monday night, but say the issue will remain in talks for the future.
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