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Heitkamp: Safe Freight Act is a commonsense way to keep our communities safe

Heidi Heitkamp

It's a nightmare situation nobody ever wants to confront: a train with highly flammable cargo, derailed and burning within eyeshot of your community. But that's exactly what North Dakotans faced in Casselton four years ago, and more recently near Heimdal.

With freight rail passing by so many of our communities, it's imperative we do everything we can to keep our homes and families safe. That's why I recently introduced the Safe Freight Act — legislation to make sure that there's enough manpower on freight trains to deal with any accidents that may occur.

One of the biggest lessons we learned from the Casselton derailment is that having more than one crewmember on board significantly reduced the impact of the event. The trainmen heroically worked together to pull rail cars full of crude oil away from the accident site, preventing the dangerous explosions from spreading further. Today, freight trains can still be operated by only one person, but the Safe Freight Act would require at least two crewmembers to be on board to better deal with unexpected situations and prevent mishaps from becoming tragedies.

In the aftermath of the Casselton derailment, I immediately called for and chaired a Senate hearing on rail safety and emergency response. I brought Tim McLean, Casselton's fire chief, to Washington to give lawmakers a firsthand account of what first responders need to protect our communities. As a result of our productive conversations, I introduced a bipartisan bill called the RESPONSE Act to help ensure that emergency personnel in North Dakota and across the country are provided the right training and resources to respond to these incidents. My bill passed with bipartisan support and was signed in to law in 2016.

As part of my broader Strong and Safe Communities Initiative, which I launched several years ago to address the emerging safety challenges in our state, I've been working with North Dakota's first responders on ways to better protect our rural communities. One of the biggest challenges our communities face is recruiting and retaining first responders. Our communities rely heavily on volunteers — in fact, 96 percent of our firefighters work on a volunteer basis. The time commitment and training required can make it difficult to recruit new volunteers who are also maintaining full-time jobs to support their families. That's why I've introduced legislation to thank and incentivize our volunteer first responders by giving them access to a federal student loan program and making it easier to afford housing in the rural communities where volunteers are needed most.

The derailments we've experienced in North Dakota aren't isolated incidents — they've occurred in communities across the country. With many industries in North Dakota relying on rail to get their goods to consumers, we have to work to make rail transport as safe and efficient as possible. My Safe Freight Act is a commonsense way to keep our communities strong and safe while supporting an industry that is vital to North Dakota jobs and prosperity.

Heitkamp represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.