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Slow Ride

August 15, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
While passenger rail promoters envision sleek trains linking major U.S cities at greater than 100 miles per hour, folks in south central Minnesota are hoping for a more modest version of high-speed rail: freight service at the breathtaking pace of 25 m.p.h.

That's right, 25 miles per hour. But even that's a distant dream for the Minnesota Prairie Line, whose decrepit 19th-century tracks limit trains to a top speed of 7 m.p.h. over most of its 94-mile route from Hanley Falls to Norwood.  It takes two crews and more than 12 hours to get a train from one end to the other.

Still, the little railroad has been a boon to farmers and businessmen in five rural counties, boosting local profits on corn and soybeans and starting 500 carloads of ethanol and livestock feed each month from the Heartland Corn Products plant in Winthrop on their way to customers in California.

"Without a railroad, the small towns suffer economically," said Gene Short, a Redwood County commissioner and vice chairman of the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority, a joint-powers governmental body that owns the Prairie Line right of way. "Heartland is doing better because of it."

Next week, elected officials and other residents of the area will gather at the Winthrop Vets Club and launch a coalition to seek the $50 million to $60 million it will take to get the track up to 25 m.p.h. speed by 2011.

Earlier public-private partnerships have put more than $12 million into the project, enough to improve about 20 miles of track with new ballast, ties and 115-pound rails. Since 2002, carload shipments have increased from zero to 7,000 a year, generating enough revenue to keep paying down $6 million in loans from the state of Minnesota, local shippers and the Twin Cities & Western Railroad, which operates the Prairie Line.

 As with much of the recent history of rail transportation in the United States, the Prairie Line's story begins with a private-sector failure. After decades of deferring maintenance on what was a small branch of its main line, the Chicago & North Western Railway abandoned the route in the early 1980s to the public rail authority.

Attempts to resell the right of way to a string of private operators ended in business failures, leaving the region with no rail service at all for a total of about three years, Short said.

But the operating partnership with Twin Cities & Western, whose main line runs from St. Paul to Milbank, S.D., has proved sustainable for the long term. It has spurred economic development such as the Heartland facility and the nation's largest inland fertilizer plant, which United Farmers Coop plans to open in Winthrop in the fall. Its locomotives are the first in the nation powered by 5 percent biodiesel fuel, produced trackside in Redwood Falls.

"We have lots of other projects that we'd like to see happen, but we need better train service," said Julie Rath, the regional rail authority administrator. Proposals include biomass energy generation and even a weekend dinner train from Fairfax to casino mecca Morton, two towns that have preserved their original railroad depots.

In addition, moving heavy commodities by rail saves taxpayers the cost of wear and tear on roads wrought by the alternative carriers, big trucks.

If the Prairie Line coalition's hopes of 25 m.p.h. freight service materialize, unit trains of 100 tanker cars each could load up with 3 million gallons of ethanol at Winthrop. That would slash the current cost of sending 25 cars at a time to Cologne, 30 miles away on the Twin Cities & Western main line, for eventual assembly into unit trains.

For-profit Twin Cities & Western breaks even on its Prairie Line operations these days, said company president Mark Wegner. "It's not a money-maker right now," he said. "The goal is to promote economic development in south central Minnesota, which needs it."

It will take serious contributions from the federal government, the state of Minnesota and probably local governments and businesses along the Prairie Line to get the trains up to speed. But the track record so far shows it would be a worthwhile investment.

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