Train derailment, and a bit of luck, strikes again in Casselton, N.D.

Crews clean up on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, after two BNSF trains derailed just west of Casselton, N.D., on Thursday.
Crews clean up on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, after two BNSF trains derailed just west of Casselton, N.D., on Thursday. AP

What are the odds? For the second time in less than a year, the small town of Casselton, N.D., is in the headlines for the derailment of a crude oil train.

Unlike the Dec. 30 derailment, Thursday’s mishap didn’t ignite a huge fireball or lead to the evacuation of half the town. This time, the oil train was empty.

“Fortunately, this one here turned out better than last year’s,” said Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean, who’s testified before Congress this year, at a news conference Thursday.

Still, the derailment of two trains about a mile from December’s accident site angered local officials and drew the attention of federal regulators who have spent more than a year working with the rail industry to improve the safety of crude oil shipments.

“We deserve some answers and I don’t think any of us want to hear anymore that this is a coincidence,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said Thursday night.

No one was injured in Thursday’s incident, when a freight train derailed into the path of the empty crude oil train on an adjacent track near an ethanol plant.

“We got lucky this time, the fact that these cars were empty. They derailed right next to the ethanol plant,” Laney said. “What if they had been full?”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement Friday that luck wasn’t good enough.

“We saw what happened in Casselton almost a year ago and yesterday’s incident is disappointing,” she said.

BNSF Railway said Friday in a statement that a broken rail appears to have caused the latest derailment. The track is inspected regularly according to federal standards, the railroad said, and a visual inspection of the track on Wednesday revealed no defects.

Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo said Friday that top BNSF officials will meet with him in Washington next week to discuss the derailment and to “identify meaningful next steps to ensure an overall culture of safety at BNSF.”

North Dakota’s Bakken region produces more than a million barrels a day of light, sweet crude, making the state the nation’s second leading producer behind Texas. Most of that oil moves to refineries and barge terminals by train, and BNSF operates most of the trains.

But a series of accidents, including the two in North Dakota and others in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Quebec, have spurred the rail industry and its regulators to re-evaluate everything from train speeds to track inspections to tank car construction.