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Train derailment in Minnesota thrusts rail safety back into the spotlight

The derailment of a BNSF train in Minnesota early Thursday sparked the evacuation of nearby residents and thrust the issue of rail safety back into the spotlight.The train, which was hauling ethanol and corn syrup, derailed and caught fire in the town of Raymond, roughly 100 miles west of Minneapolis, according to the Associated Press.


The derailment of a BNSF train in Minnesota early Thursday sparked the evacuation of nearby residents and thrust the issue of rail safety back into the spotlight.

The train, which was hauling ethanol and corn syrup, derailed and caught fire in the town of Raymond, roughly 100 miles west of Minneapolis, according to the Associated Press.

BNSF confirmed in an email to MarketWatch that the train derailed near Raymond at 1:02 a.m. Central time on March 30. “Approximately 22 cars carrying mixed freight including ethanol and corn syrup are reported to be derailed, with four cars on fire,” BNSF said.

“There are no other hazardous materials on the train and no injuries as a result of the incident,” the rail carrier added. “BNSF field personnel are onsite to assess the derailment site and are working closely with local first responders.”

The incident is the latest derailment to make the news in recent weeks. On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern Corp. NSC, +0.64% train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in an incident that was described as a “PR nightmare” for Norfolk Southern and the rail industry. On March 26, a Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. CP, -0.57% train derailed in North Dakota, spilling chemicals, the Associated Press reports.

Now read: What’s next for Norfolk Southern after Senate hearing on East Palestine, Ohio, disaster?

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz traveled to Raymond and has spoken to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the latest accident.

“I’ve been briefed on the situation unfolding in Raymond and I’m on my way to the site of the derailment now,” Walz tweeted Thursday morning. “Just got off the phone with @SecretaryPete and will be on the ground with local officials soon. The state stands ready to protect the health and safety of the community.”

On Thursday morning, the National Transportation Safety Board tweeted: “The NTSB is launching a team to conduct a safety investigation into Thursday’s train derailment involving a BNSF train in Raymond, Minnesota. Team expected to arrive later this afternoon.”

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Everstream Analytics, a supply-chain analytics company, has been researching train derailments involving Class I rail carriers between 2018 and 2023. A Class I carrier is defined as any carrier earning annual revenue greater than $943.9 million, according to the U.S. government’s Surface Transportation Board. Data show that derailments across rail companies increased considerably in the U.S. between 2021 and 2022, according to Everstream Analytics.

“The latest train derailment in Minnesota once again highlights the critical role rail freight plays in North American supply chains, transporting essential goods from chemicals to corn as well as automotive parts,” Mirko Woitzik, global director of intelligence solutions at Everstream Analytics, told MarketWatch. “However, it’s also become clear that these trains are becoming longer and heavier while safety regulations have not been updated to meet such changes, increasing supply-chain risks for companies.”

Related: Here are the chemicals spilled near Philly as U.S. drinking-water safety is top of mind

BNSF derailments rose from five in 2018 to 10 in 2021 and 17 in 2022, according to Everstream Analytics’ data. The data, which run through March 23, 2023, list two derailments for BNSF this year.

Norfolk Southern derailments rose from four in 2018 to 10 in 2019 and 17 in 2020, according to Everstream Analytics. The carrier had 13 derailments in 2021 and 15 in 2022, with 6 so far in 2023, the research indicates.

Union Pacific Corp. UNP, -0.32% derailments increased from four in 2018 to 24 in 2021 and 33 in 2022, according to Everstream Analytics.

MarketWatch has reached out to BNSF, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific with requests for comment on the data.

Related: Norfolk Southern sued by Ohio over ‘entirely avoidable’ East Palestine derailment

Rail-industry safety has been a high-profile issue since the East Palestine derailment, with Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, proposing a bipartisan rail-safety bill in the wake of the disaster.

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On Thursday, Brown and Pennsylvania Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey, both Democrats, introduced the Railway Accountability Act, which builds on the proposals laid out in Brown and Vance’s Railway Safety Act.

According to the senators, the Railway Accountability Act would improve rail safety by directing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to study wheel-related failures and derailments and by enhancing switchyard safety practices, enacting brake-safety measures and requiring large freight-rail companies to join a confidential “close-call” reporting system administered by the FRA and NASA. The act would also ensure that railways provide sufficient reporting and safety equipment to workers, they said.

“This bill will implement commonsense safety reforms, hold the big railway companies accountable, protect the workers who make these trains run, and help prevent future catastrophes that endanger communities near railway infrastructure,” Fetterman said in a statement.

Related: Norfolk Southern will do ‘everything it takes’ for East Palestine, CEO tells senators

“These commonsense safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again,” Brown said in the same statement.

“Many freight rail companies reduced their number of safety inspectors as a cost-cutting measure in 2020,” Woitzik told MarketWatch. “Despite a rebound in cargo volumes, companies have not yet returned to prepandemic staffing levels.”

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