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Rail News: Safety

Wisconsin lawmakers unveil rail safety bill in wake of derailments


Wisconsin State Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) on Wednesday introduced legislation aimed at improving rail safety in her state.

Co-authored by Wisconsin State Sens. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) and Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), the bill would provide for more state rail track inspectors; require railroads to submit prevention and response plans to the state; provide training for local emergency first responders along railroad routes; and create guidelines for coordination and response timelines in the event of a derailment.

Billings introduced the bill in the wake of two derailments in Wisconsin over the past week: a BNSF Railway Co. train derailed in Alma that led to an ethanol spill, and a Canadian Pacific train that derailed in Watertown, spilling hundreds of gallons of crude oil. CP determined that a broken rail caused the incident, the Associated Press reported.

"The most recent train derailments are unfortunately part of a recurring problem with rail safety in our state," said Billings. "The dangerous impacts of these derailments – including environmental disasters, and the potential for harm to Wisconsinites living in these communities – indicate that we must take action now to secure our railroads and prevent further damage."

Additionally, the legislation would require the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Railroads to submit to the Legislature a report on emergency preparedness, an assessment of training needs for first responders statewide, and inventory of both public and private resources available in the event of a derailment, according to a press release issued by Billings' office.

Furthermore, the law would call upon the Office of the Commissioner of Railroads to send recommendations to the Legislature to improve preparedness and safety.

Although the railroad system is regulated by the federal government, the bill contains measures that legislators can pursue on a state level to improve rail safety in Wisconsin, Billings' staffers said.

The bill was modeled after rail safety legislation enacted in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Sarah Feinberg, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, yesterday visited Wisconsin near the site of last weekend's train derailment in Alma, where she met with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

During her time there, Feinberg said that railroads are starting to see the need to be more transparent with the public.

"I think the railroads are hearing us," Feinberg was quoted as saying by Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR). "I think that they are starting to understand that absolutely the public … has the right to have their questions answered."

WPR also reported that BNSF announced plans to compensate first responders and local businesses for the derailment's community impacts.