New double track could help ease rail congestion

BIG LAKE — Work is underway to add a second rail line in two key central Minnesota areas that have seen increased rail traffic in recent years.

Crews with BNSF Railway are laying a double track along a 10-mile stretch between Becker and Big Lake. They also will add a 1-mile stretch of double track near Little Falls.

The construction is part of BNSF's plan to spend $326 million this year on improving capacity and maintenance in Minnesota, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth wrote in an email. The expansion "will help us to better serve the growing needs of our customers in Minnesota and across our Northern Corridor," McBeth wrote.

The new tracks are expected to be in service later this fall.

The project could help relieve some of the congestion caused by an increase in the amount of freight moving by rail, including oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and eastern Montana and grain from a record harvest last year.


An average of 46 trains a day travel the route through the St. Cloud area, according to BNSF.

Combined with weather, derailments and other issues, the increase caused delays last year for the Northstar commuter rail line and deliveries of coal to the Sherco power plant in Becker. Some cities also have experienced traffic backups at road crossings.

"For us in Becker, it's a pretty big deal," said Greg Pruszinske, city administrator. "I think that we will see a lot of the congestion and the trains sitting on the (side tracks) — we'll see that alleviated."

Pruszinske said the project should improve service to businesses like Liberty Paper in Becker's industrial park.

He's also hopeful that the added track will improve the delivery of coal to the Sherco plant, which is served by a separate spur owned by Xcel Energy. The plant had a much smaller supply of coal than usual last fall due to delayed shipments.

In an emailed statement, Craig Romer, director of fuel supply operations for Xcel, said the company hopes the work will improve overall traffic flow in the corridor and benefit Xcel trains traveling from the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to Sherco.

"We are supportive of the railroad's efforts to improve efficiencies and reduce delays caused by congestion," Romer stated.

The expansion also could boost the Northstar commuter rail line, which struggled last year with delays that affected its reliability and ridership.


The additional track will have a positive effect on Northstar's service, said Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.

However, "it's not the silver bullet solution," he said. Because Northstar leases the right to use the BNSF track, freight trains still will take priority, he said.

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