Small Railroad at Center of LRT has Big Stake

The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the Star Tribune and updated on  March 21, 2014:


Air brakes squealing and hissing, the locomotives painted Minnesota Gophers maroon and gold lurched to a stop at grain elevators towering over snow-swept farmland.

It’s music to the people who count on the small central Minnesota railroad to reach big markets.

“Huge,” said Jeff Nielsen, who runs the grain silos in Brownton.

But when the Twin Cities & Western rolls into the Twin Cities, just 55 miles away, it’s a huge problem. The city of Minneapolis demands that it be rerouted from a recreational corridor to a St. Louis Park neighborhood to make room for the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line. St. Louis Park says no way.

The stalemate threatens to kill the $1.5 billion light-rail project — the biggest in the Twin Cities — after 15 years of planning and engineering work.

The metro feud is foreign to the operators of grain silos and ethanol plants between the Twin Cities and the South Dakota border who see the TC&W as friend, not foe.

“The rail is the main source of shipping out our grain,” said Allen Baysinger, manager of South Central Grain & Energy in Buffalo Lake. “It affects a lot of people.”

That impact is one reason the federal government gives railroads a loud voice in deciding whether their rail lines can be rerouted. Even a small player like TC&W, running maybe seven to 10 trains a day compared with 1,500 by BNSF Railway Co., can exert near-veto power.

The TC&W’s rejection of all but the most elaborate reroute option has prompted accusations that it’s exploiting the Southwest Corridor dispute to win “Cadillac” tracks to improve its business.

Fans, not air conditioning

Yet riding on the TC&W can seem more like traveling in a used Chevy than a Cadillac. West of Glencoe, there’s little high-tech. Two small ceiling fans above the windshield of the locomotive substitute for air conditioning. While whistles of larger railroads are automated, TC&W engineer Chad Hedin sounds out each blast by hand. Signal lights guide freight traffic in the Twin Cities, but out in the country Hedin gets on the radio for permission to move on to tracks shared by other railroads.

“If there’s another train … I’m going to have to find a way to hide from it,” Hedin said.

Clouds of snow sprayed onto the locomotive’s windows as it plowed through buried one-lane intersections. Hedin reached down to a metal radiator that doubles as a hot plate and grabbed a can of steak-and-cheese soup for his lunch.

“You want something hot, that’s the only thing you got,” he said, spooning soup from the can. “You can cook any type of meat on it except bacon.”

Critical to farmers

His drill that day: Drop off empty grain cars at elevators while heading west. A night train would pick up the cars filled with corn, soybeans or other grain on a return run to St. Paul, where it’s transferred to other railroads.

The TC&W line, which operates on 229 miles of track, has become a much bigger deal in recent years as the railroad industry moves toward longer trains. In the past two years, farmer cooperatives along its line representing thousands of shareholders built new elevator chutes to load 110-car unit trains.

“They’ve invested over $50 million in these facilities to use the rail,” said Nielsen of United Farmers Cooperative, which operates elevators in Brownton.

Baysinger of South Central Grain and Energy said its new Buffalo Lake train-loading facility “gives us access to all the markets … into Canada, the Gulf. That gives us … the most bang for the buck.”

Farther west, the TC&W picks up tons of processed sugar from the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville, owned by 500 farm families.

“We ship between 40 and 50 percent of our product by the railroad,” co-op President Kelvin Thompsen said. “Those customers we are currently serving by rail are not economically accessible by truck because of distance.”

More than a dozen elevator managers and other rural businessmen showed up last week at a Southwest Corridor planning session in St. Louis Park in an organized show of support for TC&W, which rejects the latest reroute plan in favor of keeping its line in the Minneapolis Kenilworth corridor.

“Freight will make or break us,” Chuck Steffl, president of a salt delivery firm in Redwood Falls, told metro leaders. “It’s very important that it stay the way it is or is not changed in a way that increases our costs.”

Resisting a reroute

The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the Southwest light-rail project, studied several ways to reroute the TC&W trains in hopes of finding one that would satisfy St. Louis Park and the railroad. Routes were rejected over concerns about transportation costs or safety. Running it on two-story berms in St. Louis Park satisfied the railroad, which said they were needed to flatten grades and straighten curves to preserve its existing service, not improve it as critics charged. But St. Louis Park objected to the route’s location near single-family homes and a school.

So the group of metro leaders last fall opted to keep the freight trains next to bike and pedestrian trails in the Kenilworth corridor and sink the light-rail line in tunnels under it. Minneapolis opposes that $160 million plan or a $40 million alternative that would move a third of the recreational trails to side streets and allow the freight and transit lines to run side by side.

The outstate commodity executives don’t comprehend the resistance to moving the trails. “It makes a lot more sense to us,” said Thompsen, operator of the Renville sugar beet plant.

Try, try again, but no

The Minneapolis opposition prompted the Met Council to design yet another freight reroute: a path through St. Louis Park similar to earlier versions that didn’t have high berms but met national railroad safety standards. St. Louis Park and TC&W still rejected it. The railroad says the route’s curves and elevation changes would make it more costly and less safe to operate than its current tracks in Kenilworth.

The existing track runs straight and level from western Minnesota into the Twin Cities and passes through a mostly commercial stretch of St. Louis Park before entering the Kenilworth corridor. St. Louis Park officials want to keep it that way.

Earlier this month, an eastbound TC&W train hauling plastic pellets cruised at 25 miles per hour on the stretch before reaching a narrow part of the Kenilworth corridor close to Minneapolis townhouses.

At the controls, engineer Eric Handt surveyed the rails ahead and the cross-country ski tracks between them.

“The other day they were skiing down the middle,” he said.

At crossings, Handt sounded bells rather than the whistle to satisfy Minneapolis concerns about noise. He slowed the train to 10 mph, barely keeping pace with a bicyclist on an adjacent snow-packed trail.

The train crawled over a decrepit wooden bridge across a water channel between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, past the back yards of some Kenilworth residents with lawn signs advocating the removal of the freight — or a different route for the light rail.

It continued north until stopping at east-west tracks belonging to a giant of the freight train industry, BNSF. That railroad employs 41,000 workers across the nation; TC&W employs 80 in Minnesota. The smaller railroad can use the BNSF tracks, but must ask it for clear passage.

Handt got on the radio phone and called a dispatcher at BNSF headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, and waited for several minutes before the phone crackled with an answer.

“Let that little TCWR go by,” drawled the dispatcher.