DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — The last of 55 miles of new double railroad track was placed into service in northwestern North Dakota this past week by BNSF Railway, as the company works to ease the backlog of rail shipments that have plagued the state and region.
The double track, between Minot and Williston, and several new sets of sidetracks, most of which are along the railroad’s mainlines, are part of $5.5 billion in track improvements — including $400 million in North Dakota — being made throughout the railroad’s northern corridor this year.
“That is private investment in our infrastructure to continue to meet the growing demand for moving freight by rail,” said Amy McBeth, BNSF regional spokeswoman. “We have also been adding employees, locomotives and rail cars across the north region. Even as freight volumes approach record high levels, we continue to generate improved train and locomotive velocity across the system.”
BNSF has hired more than 400 new employees in North Dakota this year.
In addition to the double track expansion, other major work this year includes four siding projects between Grand Forks and Fargo, three between Grand Forks and Devils Lake, as well as a total of four others near Jamestown, Dickinson and between Bismarck and Zap, N.D.
A siding is additional tracks built adjacent to the mainline track to allow one train to pass another.
“In addition to the work in North Dakota, there are several other expansion projects on the network in Washington and Montana, for example, that help move North Dakota products more efficiently,” McBeth said.
Counting this year’s $400 million, BNSF has invested nearly $1 billion in maintenance and expansion projects in North Dakota over the past five years, according to McBeth.
While detailed plans have not been announced yet, BNSF expects to build another 36 or 37 miles of double track between Minot and Williston in 2015, in addition to routine maintenance, such as replacing rails and ties, she said.
The railroad also invested about $120 million in Minnesota, including construction of a new siding and new interchange tracks near St. Vincent, Minn., near the Canadian border.
Because of the work, there are signs of shorter delays.
According to a Surface Transportation Board report dated Nov. 5, BNSF had 3,334 grain cars in North Dakota late an average of 15 days. That compares with 3,509 cars an average of 14 days late the previous week.
During the past three months, the weekly reports to the STP also show improvement in both states.
Elevators operators along BNSF’s mainline routes — which essentially parallel Interstate 29, U.S. Highway 2 and Interstate 94 — have noticed a difference.
“I think things certainly have improved over a year ago,” said Paul Coppin, general manager of Reynolds United Co-op in Reynolds, N.D. “A lot of that is because a lot of the grain from this harvest hasn’t come in yet because of market prices. But BNSF has improved. There’s no doubt about that.”
The co-op, which loads 26- and 54-car trains, has had two trains since harvest, both arriving about two weeks late.
“That’s certainly better than a year ago, when they were six to eight weeks late,” he said.
However, some elevators along secondary lines — especially those without facilities to load 110-car unit or shuttle trains — have yet to see benefits from the BNSF project.
“Our service is about as bad as it ever has been,” said Roger Krueger, general manager of Cando Farmers Grain and Oil in Cando, N.D., which has the capacity to load 26-car trains.
He said that while as many as three shuttle trains — totaling some 330 cars — travel right through town most weeks on their way to larger facilities in the region, they’re not stopping in Cando, a Towner County city of 1,100 about 120 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
The elevator currently is about five weeks behind on its orders.
“I understand the concept and the efficiency of the shuttle service,” he said, “but we’re sitting in a position where we’re going to have to do something to survive.”
He said Cando elevator officials are considering the possibility of building a larger facility outside of town that could load shuttle trains.
“We’re sitting right smack dab in the middle of town,” he said. “There’s no room to expand here.”
McBeth said BNSF improvements this year have been concentrated along the main lines.
“As we increase our capacity in North Dakota through the double track project and the numerous siding projects, as well as by hiring more employees and adding locomotives and rail cars, we will continue to see gradual improvement in service for all of our customers,” she said.