Railroad PR whistle-stop tour comes to Brainerd

The railroad industry came to Brainerd Wednesday to try to improve its image, speaking to local leaders about safety and economic impact.

BNSF Railway and the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association both had representatives talk about the rail industry inside Roundhouse Brewing, a craft brewery inside the Northern Pacific Center. In the railroad heyday, Brainerd’s railroad hub featured a roundhouse, a rotating train platform with garages so Northern Pacific could repair and maintain its trains. The Northern Pacific Railroad forms part of the corporate lineage of what eventually became BNSF.

As Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian noted, the town of Brainerd is named after the maiden surname of a Northern Pacific Railroad president’s wife. The Brainerd chamber and the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation helped organize Wednesday’s presentation, which featured Amy McBeth, a spokesperson for BNSF, and John Apitz, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association trade group. Craft beer and lunch was served for the attendees, which included city officials, local businesspeople and Minnesota legislators including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Fairview Township, and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point.

Apitz opened his talk by saying the presentations, which he called “Railroads 101,” were intended to counter bad publicity the industry received in the last few years.

“We’re trying to dispel some of that criticism, dispel some of that concern, and tell you what we’re doing,” he said.

The industry has shrunk since 40 years ago—4,500 miles of track in the state now compared to about double that in the 1970s, Apitz said. During the 1970s, the rail industry had “almost been regulated out of existence” and Congress almost nationalized what was left of it, he said. But they opted not to. Forty-seven large railroad companies consolidated into seven railroads, and the private industry survived. Railroads carry 26-27 percent of all freight in Minnesota, Apitz said, including consumer product and agriculture products.

“We’re going to bump into each other,” he said. “We’re going to bump into each other at grade crossings, we’re going find out that we’re going to have to find some ways of working together.”

The industry still pays a great deal of taxes, Apitz said, although Gov. Mark Dayton had “toned down his fervor” for taxing the railroads.

A BNSF facility in Brainerd employs about 100 people, McBeth said. The employees manufacture and repair road equipment for the entire BNSF network—state-of-the-art, software-assisted machines like track-lifting units that pick up entire sections of track at once while simultaneously evening out the rocks underneath and allowing employees to replace bad railroad ties.

“Railroad is really a very modern industry,” McBeth said. “We might be 150-160 years old, but the amount of technology we use and deploy, and are continually updating and implementing, is amazing.”

The five or so trains that typically run through Brainerd usually carry coal, McBeth said. But she talked at length about the hot-button issue of crude oil by rail, referencing a fiery derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people in 2013. Generally, freight railroads are the safest way of moving commodities, she said.

BNSF continually invests in safety and renovations, she said, with an estimated $85 million going to maintaining and upgrading its rail network in Minnesota this year. Over the past 30 years, the rate of collisions and derailments decreased about 80 percent, she said. BNSF track is inspected four times a week, double what is federally mandated, she said. In what the federal government calls “high-threat urban areas,” BNSF limits its crude oil trains to 35 mph and 50 mph outside those areas. Urban routes are actually considered safer than rural ones because first responders are closer to the line.

Crude oil cars are owned by whatever company is paying BNSF to ship the oil or third parties, not BNSF itself, McBeth said. However, BNSF earmarks those cars for expedited removal off the rail line in the case of malfunction warning signs. The company also incentivizes its shippers to switch to safer, more modern oil cars. Of the type of rail cars considered less safe and connected to the Quebec incident, none are moving crude on BNSF lines, she said. Crude oil never made up more than 5 percent of BNSF volume, she added. The company also maintains close ties with local first responders.

“Despite what you might have heard from the governor and some others over the last couple of years, we have for decades worked with and trained with first responders,” McBeth said.

The new website allows first responders to request information on what hazardous materials trains are carrying and when. There’s also a mobile app so first responders can type in a rail car’s number to find out what it’s carrying and how to respond to a leak.

McBeth’s presentation focused on safety and crude by rail, but after she opened the event up for questions, Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson wanted to know about the noise of train horns.

“You talk about (having) control of all the operations … are the whistles controlled?” Olson asked. “One of the big complaints we get from residents is, it’s so loud, it’s so long, and it’s different.”

McBeth answered it’s federally mandated for safety that the operators blow their horns at certain points when the train is passing through a town, the pattern of which is dictated by federal law. Municipalities can create “quiet zones,” or special rail crossings with safety measures to compensate for the driver not blowing the horn. However, they are often cost prohibitive, McBeth said.

Even if a community institutes a quiet zone, the operators will blow the horn anyway if they see people near the track, she said.

The company can see when an operator blows the horn by looking at an event recorder—essentially a “black box” for trains. McBeth encouraged people with multiple complaint instances to contact her, and to include the time and ideally, the train number.