BNSF Railway Co. will spend $326 million on Minnesota railroad improvements in 2015, nearly triple the amount spent last year as the company addresses historic increases in freight and tries to speed up service that was crippled last year, officials announced Thursday.
The Texas-based railroad said it will spend the money on Minnesota rail maintenance and five new capacity expansions that should ultimately speed up trains and make the system flow better statewide.
Last year, the company spent $138 million on Minnesota rail improvements and more than $400 million in North Dakota. This year the focus is heavy in Minnesota, which faced record "challenges" last year, said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth.
BNSF got caught in "a perfect storm," said Dave Christianson, rail and freight planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. BNSF suffered the polar vortex, relentless snowstorms and record shipments of iron ore, coal, grain and crude oil that all hit at once.
"So their service levels suffered greatly last year. And they are now making the necessary improvements to prevent that from happening again," Christianson said.
"This year they are spending a lot more than normal and will change from single tracks to double tracks. In other places, they will improve rail yards and rail sidings," he said. "When the construction is complete, that will allow them to move more trains faster and let them have trains pass each other instead of backing up. Hopefully this will reduce some of the crossing blockages in a lot of towns."
The Minnesota spending is part of a much bigger plan. "This is the third year we have spent an all-time record in our infrastructure," McBeth said. BNSF spent $4 billion in 2013 and $5.5 billion last year. This year, it will spend $6 billion to improve the 32,500 miles of track it runs in 28 states and three Canadian provinces.
In Minnesota, BNSF will construct 13 miles of double tracks from Big Lake to Becker and from Little Falls to Darling. It will also begin grading land to install tracks between Randall and Lincoln.
BNSF will install a new centralized traffic signal system that will serve its Monticello, Staples and St. Croix subdivisions. That project should improve train flow and efficiencies, officials said.
The third project involves building two miles of double tracks from BNSF's Minneapolis Junction to St. Anthony. A section in Dayton's Bluff in St. Paul will get a third track.
Lastly, the company will build a new train siding along its Noyes subdivision that will let trains on the same line pass each other.
As for maintenance projects, BNSF plans to tackle 269 miles of track surfacing and undercutting work. It also will replace 125 miles of rail and 427,000 railroad ties. There will also be signal upgrades required by the federal government, officials said.
The collective changes should improve service. BNSF runs scores of oil and freight trains through Minnesota each week. And it provides the track that runs the Northstar Commuter line and Amtrak.
The uptick in freight volume, plus accidents in recent years, have prompted regulators to evaluate traffic headaches and to newly assess potential risks at rail crossings across the state.
The closer scrutiny comes in the wake of a BNSF train derailment that happened just over a year ago 24 miles outside of Fargo N.D. The derailment resulted in explosions but no injuries.
In December, Minnesota transportation officials estimated that it will cost at least $280 million to upgrade railroad crossings on Minnesota highways and roads. The fear is that passing oil trains from North Dakota could pose a risk of explosions and fires.
McBeth said BNSF's capital spending plan had nothing to do with the state's recent study. The plans have been in the works for a while. "We invest significant sums each year so we can continue to operate safely."