Intermodal shippers ask for help in far-flung train plans

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Minnesota's Department of Transportation officials say a new Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan won't impede ag and other freight traffic.

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Minnesota's Department of Transportation officials say a new Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan won't impede ag and other freight traffic.

But it isn't clear whether or how soon it could help it, either, especially for shippers sending ag products via containers.

Officials heading the state's rail service plan discussed the timetable for writing and implementing a plan at an Oct. 21 open house in Moorhead, Minn. Similar meetings are being held in the state in St. Cloud, Rochester, Red Wing, St. Paul, Duluth and Mankato.

The state plan must be in place because states without such a plan won't be eligible for federal grants after 2010. After that, all federal funding must be consistent with a state plan.

Putting the plan in place involves six state agencies, five federal agencies, plus regional and local government entities. Implementing it over a 20-year plan across the entire system would cost billions.


Dave Christianson, project manager for the plan, says the 2008 Minnesota Legislature appropriated $26 million and set a goal of getting the plan in place by Feb. 1, 2010. Christianson laid out a plan schedule that started last March and will be written by Nov. 12 and 13.

A vital role

Rail is a critical part of the state's multimodal freight system and provides connections to key markets beyond the state, Christianson says. Nationally, 20 percent of the freight volume travels by rail and 4 percent of its value. In Minnesota, one-third of the freight moves by rail and 20 percent of its value.

Agriculture is a heavy user of rail.

Christianson says a "major problem" in Minnesota is for ag exporters to go through intermodal yards in the Twin Cities to get the job done.

"In the current (price) system, that isn't too large a hurdle to deal with on a business level, but when the price of diesel went about $4.50 a gallon, they could no longer afford to ship 300 to 400 miles" by truck, to get to an intermodal terminal in the Twin Cities, Christianson says.

Christianson says MnDOT "should be aiming at" reactivating the Dilworth, Minn., intermodal yard, among other places. But he also says there are "big hurdles" to reopening Dilworth, saying he needs to "start working with North Dakota and businesses in both states."

Plans for these intermodal sites have been in Minot, Bismarck, Casselton and elsewhere and have misfired with hundreds of thousands being invested in studies, with no real progress.


"At this point, we have not talked across the border," Christianson says. "We think there's enough traffic out there to bring container traffic back to Dilworth if we make a good case for it."

He says there are issues of yard configuration, train operations and work rules to be ironed out.

"We have to have a cooperative railroad, particularly if we are going to invest some public funding for the good of the state," Christianson says.

Bob Sinner of SB&B Inc. of Casselton wants MNDOT to take in North Dakota and northeast South Dakota uses for such a facility. Sinner acknowledges that this already has been studied exhaustively, with no end result.

Curt Petrich, general manager of a SunOpta Inc. plant in Moorhead, which handles organic and identity-preserved commodities, has little optimism that the Dilworth intermodal site will be reopened and says it appears the answer for the near future will be getting products to the containers -- and not vice versa.

Petrich notes that Winnipeg, Manitoba, is working to develop intermodal loading, with railroad and government cooperation. U.S. products trying to access that facility face ever-increasing border crossing restrictions.

Christianson and colleagues say federal plans to update railroad plans heated up during the high-priced gasoline and diesel periods, as the government sought to increase mass transit funding and cut the reliance on semi-trailer traffic, which use more diesel than trains.

Passenger train considerations


Minnesota's plans involve increased connections to the Pacific Northwest and West, but also on commuter and freight traffic to the east of Minneapolis toward Chicago, and to the southwest and Kansas City, Christianson says. Improvements on the existing corridors for freight and passenger traffic include an area from St. Cloud to Moorhead.

Dan Krom, a MnDOT passenger train specialist, says the state can move some passenger traffic onto the existing rail system, which is privately owned and designed for freight.

One preliminary study shows that passenger train traffic between Fargo and Minneapolis would include some 100,000 annual trips, while to St. Cloud more than 1 million.

Sinner asked whether this data was somehow linked to current Amtrak data, which involves trains showing up at 2 a.m.

Krom says state officials think the passenger system may be upgraded incrementally, in five to 10 years, and with a goal of 110 mph to 150 mph, depending on the corridor.

"You have to walk before you run, and we're crawling now," he says.

He says increasing passenger traffic to 110-mph levels is one thing, but crossing the threshold to higher speeds requires separated road beds and electrifying the corridor, with estimated costs of $36 million per mile.

Christianson says the freight system must be upgraded to handle cars of 286,000 pounds -- 110-ton carrying capacity on a four-axle load. That alone would cost an estimated $586 million over the 20-year period, across the entire rail system. All freight improvement needs alone would be $3.8 billion over the period.


Meanwhile, if only the high-priority items that cause the "biggest bottlenecks" were paid for a shared passenger/freight system, it would cost $5.3 billion over the two-decade period.

Among other things, he says upgrading the system would include Positive Train Control, which will be required by 2015 for any track that has shared traffic or carries hazardous materials. PTC involves equipment on the train that increases efficiency and prevents unsafe movement and uses global positioning systems to track train movements.

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