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.