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State seeks to update rail plan amid oil train boom

RED WING — Concerns about rail safety, increased freight traffic and passenger rail projects dominated a public meeting Wednesday night on Minnesota’s statewide rail plan.

RED WING — Concerns about rail safety, increased freight traffic and passenger rail projects dominated a public meeting Wednesday night on Minnesota's statewide rail plan.

About 30 people turned out to learn about the Minnesota Department of Transportation's plans to update its statewide rail plan , which applies to both freight and passenger rail. Minnesota created its first statewide rail plan in 2010. MnDOT Passenger Rail Director Dan Krom told the audience a lot has changed since that first plan was put together.

"If you would have told people five years ago that we'd be moving more oil and sand through Minnesota than coal, they'd have laughed you out of the room," Krom said.

The oil boom in North Dakota's Bakken region has dramatically increased Minnesota's freight rail traffic. There have also been record crop harvests in recent years, adding to the state's freight congestion.

MnDOT is holding a series of public meetings across the state to gather public input on what should be included in the updated statewide rail plan. The goal is to complete a draft plan by January and a final plan by February. A plan must be in place in order for the state to be eligible for federal rail dollars.


Former Red Wing City Council member Carol Duff was among those submitting comments. She said there need to be safety improvements to rail tank cars — especially considering how close the train tracks run to Prairie Island Indian Community. She's also concerned about how the increased freight rail traffic is impacting Amtrak service from the Twin Cities to Chicago, which runs through Red Wing.

"We can't predict when Amtrak is going to come here and sometimes it's nine hours late," Duff said. "How can people ride it if they can't predict when it's going to arrive or leave or when it will end up in Chicago?"

During the meeting, MnDOT Passenger Rail Planning Director Praveena Pidaparthi said the state is working with Wisconsin to try and get a second daily train on the Empire Builder route from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

"We are hoping it would be our first step toward getting more passenger rail service within the state," she said.

One challenge is that Minnesota and Wisconsin would be responsible for the operational and capital costs associated with the second train.

Lake City Council member Andru Peters said among the changes he'd like to see to the statewide rail plan is a commitment to expand the state's port facilities to help accommodate rail-water intermodal transportation.

"We've got some good opportunities in Red Wing and Winona, as well as in Duluth, for intermodal capabilities," he said.

Some high-speed rail proposals are also part of the statewide rail plan. The 2010 plan lists as a priority studying a possible high-speed rail route from Rochester to the Twin Cities, one from the Twin Cities to Chicago along the river route and another from the Twin Cities to Duluth. A significant difference for planners is there is no big pot of federal dollars available for high-speed rail. In 2009, there was $8 billion in federal funding up for grabs, Pidaparthi said. Those dollars are gone.


"Now we will be looking at investigating new funding methods like private-public partnerships," she said.

Red Wing resident Alan Muller said he's been disappointed by the lack of information available about the proposed high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities, also known as Zip Rail . He said he recently attended a meeting in Rochester about the project.

"The meeting raised more questions than it answered. I was very dissatisfied with the quality of information provided," Muller said. "Is MnDOT acting as an advocate of that project as it is now proceeding?"

Krom responded, "Our goal is not to be advocates. Our goal is to manage the study and the work we are directed to do."

MnDOT released a scoping document on the Zip Rail project this summer and extended the public comment period . The goal is to have the final Zip Rail scoping document finished by the end of the month, according to Pidaparthi.

After the meeting, Muller said he's also concerned about the safety risks associated with some of the products being hauled through the city and wants that addressed in the updated statewide plan.

He added, "There are oil trains and sand trains passing through that pose health hazards and safety hazards and how are they getting addressed?"



Statewide rail plan

Another meeting on the statewide rail plan is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Nov. 25 in the Winona City Council Chambers.

To read the existing statewide rail plan and offer comments on the 2015 plan, go to dot.state.mn.us/planning/railplan

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