TC&W railroad, a big player in farm country, poses a major obstacle to Twin Cities Southwest light-rail project.
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.