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BNSF had more than 700 violations on ND train tracks

WASHINGTON, D.C. ­- Federal inspectors have issued more than 700 violations to BNSF in the last eight years for defects on its tracks in North Dakota, according to a letter from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Those 721 violations came about from 3,822 FRA inspections across the state since 2006, which discovered a total of about 13,141 defects on BNSF’s network. The letter, written by FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., does not specify the extent of the violations or the severity of any defects.

Heitkamp requested more information about inspections around the site of the fiery train crash near Casselton on Dec. 30 after The Forum reported that accident was the fourth derailment in the area in less than a decade.

In Cass County alone, FRA inspectors have performed an average of 24 inspections a year on BNSF’s railroad operations, Szabo wrote. The FRA inspected railroad switches – which move trains from one set of tracks to another ­– three times a year. Three of the four derailments reported in Casselton since 2004 occurred within a few hundred yards of a switch.

“It is good to know there have been routine inspections in Cass County, but it is clear that the Casselton area is in need of increased attention considering the number of derailments around the same area,” Heitkamp said in a news release. “Folks who live near these tracks have been through a lot, and deserve to know that the rails are under close examination and that FRA is doing everything to make sure North Dakotans aren’t at risk.”

Heitkamp said she is renewing her call for more detailed information on the number of inspections performed around Casselton. The FRA previously committed to sending a high-tech inspection device, part of its Automated Track Inspection Program, to survey tracks around Casselton for flaws later this year.

The inspection figures are likely in addition to the reviews railroad companies are required by federal law to conduct on their own tracks. On the main freight railroads crossing through North Dakota, that means twice-weekly inspections.

BNSF officials have said they perform four inspections per week on their tracks in the region.

Concern about rail safety issues have intensified in the region as trains have become the main method of shipping crude oil from western North Dakota's Bakken Formation.

By last November, rail shipped 71 percent – nearly 800,000 barrels of oil a day – of the basin’s oil, according to estimates from the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The state’s top oil regulator has guessed 90 percent of Bakken crude will move by rail in 2014.