MINOT, N.D. — They’re ramping up the intermodal “ramp” at Minot, N.D., a key piece of what could become very important as an international launching pad for specialty crop growers and exporters.
Greg Oberting is chief owner and executive officer of Rail Modal Group, which operates throughout the U.S. It has an "independent affiliate," RMG Minot LLC.
Intermodal service refers to moving goods by two or more means of transportation. For instance, an intermodal container could be carried by truck across North Dakota to pick up a load of specialty crops, then taken back to Minot to be loaded on rail and taken to a port where the entire container will be moved off the rail and shipped to international destinations.
RMG launched the service in late October and shipped out its first train on Oct. 30. The concept had been worked on at Minot for many years, but no one previously has successfully done it.
John MacMartin for the past year has been interim president of the Minot Area Development Corp. He’s also been president of the Minot Chamber of Commerce for 31 years.
MacMartin said BNSF Railway recommended RMG, based on their track record elsewhere.
“This is phenomenal. It’s something the community and the state have been working on for a couple of decades,” he said.
How it works
Instead of sending them back to Asia empty, RMG organizes trains of containers and brings them to Minot. RMG removes the containers from the unit train and either loads them with products and commodities or takes them to facilities that will fill them and bring them back.
Farther than that, the customer will have choices at competing ramps. Those are located at Regina, Saskatchewan, 250 miles; Minneapolis, Minn., 500 miles; or Omaha, Neb., 650 miles.
The “vast majority” of the exports from Minot are likely to be agricultural, Oberting said. Products include distillers grains from Blue Flint Ethanol at Underwood, N.D., or pea flour from AGT Foods of Minot. They’ll load specialty grains — like peas or pulses — from large and small merchandisers. They’ve talked with Bobcat and others about moving some of their products.
“We’ll work with a producer who wants to ship one container a week, or a company that wants to ship 25 containers a week — there’s no preference,” he said.
They can work as an intermediary on some specialty crops.
“We’ll work with anyone who wants to have an export solution — it’s wide open,” Oberting said.
Once loaded, the cars are sealed.
Proteins for the world
There is land in an industrial park across the highway with land site-certified by BNSF.
“Having this facility open and operating probably increases the ability to attract more businesses that need rail access and perhaps container services as well,” he said.
An agronomist by training, Fisher retired after more than 37 years at North Dakota State University’s North Central Research Station at Minot, including the last 22 years as director. He and colleagues worked to develop specialty crops for the region’s farmers.
Those products could include anything from high-quality wheat for bagels, or any number of specialty commodities like peas and lentils.
“It allows our farmers to be diversified and get higher prices for commodities they have grown that are specialty, and identity-preserved and sold direct to the marketplace. They grow them with quality. These containers are what’s necessary to keep it identity-preserved and make money,” he said.
Cost, environment win
They put the facility at Minot because it’s directly between Chicago and Seattle on the Northern Transcon, a route operated by BNSF Railway.
Oberting has done this before in two other locations. He has relationships with partner-shippers and producers. And RMG is making “major capital investments” here, he said. The company added four new cranes in early November and is working on import potential.
“We’re moving in a positive direction,” he said.
The facility is not “train acceptable,” yet, Oberting said.
“To become train approved we are investing a significant amount to build a mainline train with dual east-west turnouts that can accept and depart an entire train in one cut, in partnership with BNSF,” he said.
A unit train holds about 220 to 260 shipping containers — a length of 6,500 feet to 7,000 feet. A single “car” for containers has five “wells” for containers, and is 285 feet. There are also three-packs and single-well cars.
An earlier effort at the site didn’t come to fruition. MacMartin said there are high hopes for this effort, especially with BNSF’s recommendation of RMG.
The 2019 North Dakota Legislature passed legislation appropriating $1.3 million for the biennium that could have been used to subsidize containers getting to the Minot facility as it was ramping up.
“We didn’t have to subsidize getting containers here, so those dollars have not been touched,” MacMartin said.