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Published July 16 2013

Forum editorial: Oil trains create new risks

Since 2004, there have been eight reported train derailments in the immediate Fargo-Moorhead area, some of them minor, some of them major. The total does not include the 2002 accident in Minot, N.D., where a derailment created a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia, or two 1996 derailments in Cass County – one near Casselton, the other near Erie.

In the grand scope of rail traffic, the number of mishaps doesn’t seem like a lot. But tell that to the people of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where about two weeks ago a train carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded, killing at least 50 people and incinerating the city’s historic downtown. Even as the townspeople had grown comfortable with the hundreds of trains that pass through their city, it only took one horrific derailment to visit disaster on them. And as with every city that has tracks through the heart of town, the danger is obvious.

Fargo and Moorhead are among cities with main-line railroad tracks that slice through business and residential districts. Count F-M as among metro areas that have seen a startling increase in oil trains originating in western North Dakota. They are carrying the same Bakken crude that spilled and burned in Quebec.

Could it happen here? Of course it could. The known record of derailments in the area in the past decade might suggest there’s no problem. Most of those incidents spilled grain, coal or building materials. But the content of rail freight has changed because of the oil trains. As much as 75 percent of Bakken crude moves in mile-long tank car trains. Hundreds of them rumble and roar through Fargo and Moorhead every month. It stands to reason: More oil train traffic translates into greater risk of accidents.

Most cities have emergency management plans in place that are designed to respond quickly to life-threatening situations, such as derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials. It is certain Lac-Megantic, Quebec, had a plan. Fargo and Moorhead have response plans. But no plan, however comprehensive, can contain the damage that would be caused by the derailment of a high-speed burning oil train in an urban center.

The record of the past 10 years or so confirms that freight train accidents happen with some frequency in the Fargo-Moorhead region. None have been as damaging as the Quebec disaster. But it’s a new era in rail transport because of oil trains. They are more potentially dangerous than a long load of grain, coal or automobiles. There are more oil trains moving across North Dakota and Minnesota than ever in history. So, it would be a stretch to conclude any city is prepared for what happened in Quebec.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.