Mar 30, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Minnesota train incident comes as rail safety under scrutiny

Flaming tanker cars from a BNSF train carrying ethanol and corn syrup that derailed in the town of Raymond, Minnesota, on March 30.

Burning tanker cars from a BNSF train carrying ethanol and corn syrup that derailed in the town of Raymond, Minnesota, on March 30. Photo: David Joles/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Residents of a Minnesota town were under an evacuation order for at least seven hours Thursday after a train hauling ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire, according to local officials.

Why it matters: The derailment comes as Congress is weighing rail safety reforms stemming from a separate train derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio, which prompted evacuations and lingering health concerns for residents.

Zoom out: Train accidents in general have plummeted since the 1970s, but the U.S. still has had an average of 1,760 train derailments per year between 1990 and 2021, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

  • Preliminary data from the Federal Railroad Administration indicates there were 1,164 derailments in 2022, though the figure is subject to change.
  • Data for 2023 is not yet available.

Driving the news: Residents of Raymond, Minnesota, a town of about 800 people roughly 100 miles west of Minneapolis, were urged by local authorities to evacuate to the nearby town of Prinsburg on Thursday morning.

  • At least 22 cars carrying mixed freight, including the ethanol and corn syrup, were involved in the derailment, which occurred around 1am CDT, according to BNSF Railway, the train's operator.
  • At least four of the cars caught on fire after the wreck, and fire suppression efforts carried on into late Thursday morning.
  • The evacuation order was lifted around noon CDT, according to the sheriff's office.
  • The National Transportation Safety Board said it sent a team to Raymond to investigate the derailment.

What they're saying: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN Thursday that preliminary findings revealed that the train was hauling roughly 40 cars, of which 14 contained hazardous materials.

  • Buttigieg said Federal Railroad Administration personnel were onsite and the Environmental Protection Agency also sent personnel because of the hazardous material.
  • The rail company said the train was not hauling any additional hazardous materials besides the ethanol.
  • Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) visited the derailment site on Thursday morning. In a statement, he said the incident "has highlighted the critical need to invest in rail safety and the state’s emergency management response to prevent incidents like this from happening again."

What we're watching: After the East Palestine derailment, lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate introduced bills to improve rail safety.

  • A coalition of more than a dozen conservative groups pushed back against the legislation introduced in the Senate in a letter to lawmakers earlier this month.
  • The House bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials on March 1, and the Senate legislation was referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on March 16.

Go deeper: Hundreds of railcars ordered removed from service due to derailment risk

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