Rail traffic picks up in Hub City

By Victoria Lusk
[email protected]

The opening of a grain terminal near Britton, a competitive market and upgrades to a state-owned rail line have Aberdeen seeing more train traffic from the northeast.

That’s a direction from which the city and commuters haven’t seen rail traffic from in quite some time.

While city officials expected to see an increase in traffic on those tracks in 2019 after AGP opens its new soybean processing plant, this year’s train traffic is a bit of a surprise.

Amy McBeth, regional director of public affairs for BNSF Railway, said four trains have come to Aberdeen from Britton since July. They cross land owned by AGP and Molded Fiber Glass before intersecting both North Eighth Avenue and North Roosevelt Street.

“The crossings’ protections in place are appropriate for the traffic that is currently there,” McBeth said.

The line meets the main east/west BNSF tracks right before North Dakota Street.

Upgrades to the state line between Aberdeen and Britton mean trains can travel around 25 mph until they get to the section owned by BNSF, which is just to the west of County Road 14 on the edge of town, McBeth said. Then the train’s speed limit decreases to just 10 mph.

“They’re a slow-moving train,” she said. “They’d move through our section at 10 mph or slower … and a 10-mph train will occupy a crossing longer than a train that’s operating at a higher rate of speed.”

That means some motorists might have to be patient as the trains move through.

The railroad tries to limit the impact the trains have on traffic, McBeth said.

Because trains have not regularly traveled these tracks for several years, drivers need to be alert.

BNSF’s No. 1 priority is to operate safely, McBeth said, which means engines sound their horns as they approach crossings.

Quiet zone

Depending on the results of an analysis, that might not be necessary in the future. The city has approved a $12,703 feasibility assessment to see whether a quiet zone can be established along the Roosevelt Street and Eighth Avenue junctions, said Lynn Lander, city manager. The assessment will be completed by Fargo, N.D.-based SRF Consulting Group.

A quiet zone would require the addition of crossing guards. Ultimately, Lander said, the amount of train traffic will determine what upgrades are made.

There is a possibility that a grant from the state would help pay for those upgrades, he said.

Lander also said it’s too early to tell if other crossings in town will eventually be analyzed for future quiet zones.

“From the data, maybe we can look at the city as a whole,” he said. “I can’t promise anything, because it’s a learning process and this is the first time the city has done one of these assessments.”

The plan was always to be ready for increased rail traffic when AGP opens, Lander said. AGP has noted that it picked Aberdeen for its new soybean plant because of its proximity to the rail and the ability to ship goods west to Aberdeen, Wash.

Exporting grain

The Wheaton Dumont Grain Terminal in Britton has been exporting its grain since September 2016, but none of it immediately came south. Instead, it was hauled north by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“The first train out was Sept. 12 (2016), when we loaded a couple dozen CP (Canadian Pacific) shuttles,” said Phillip Deal, general manager at Wheaton Dumont.

“Then, right after the Fourth of July (of this year), we started loading (BNSF) shuttles from Aberdeen,” he said.

The rail south of Britton was certified in September 2016, but the market hadn’t yet developed, Deal said. Now, even during the busiest times, he said Aberdeen can probably expect no more than a train a week from Britton.

Having the terminal built along a state-owned rail line allows Wheaton Dumont more shipping options, he said.

“When they compete for your business, ultimately service improves and that translates to better prices for the producers,” Deal said.

He estimates the average train has 115 cars, while the terminal is designed for a maximum of 120.

“In the long run, we’d anticipate half the train traffic would go north, half the traffic would go south,” Deal said.

Upgrades to the Britton-Aberdeen line were essential for the $32 million grain terminal.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard pledged $11.5 million for improvements to the line.

There was once discussion about Molded Fiber Glass using the line that runs south of its property to move wind turbine blades. That is no longer being considered, according to the company.

Follow @vlusk_AAN on Twitter.