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Light rail proposal still carries costly alternative freight route for TC & W

The Twin Cities & Western Railroad handles more than 25,000 cars a year from the region west of the Twin Cities. Its line runs parallel to U.S. Highway 212, and the company also operates the Minnesota Prairie Line. (Tribune file photo)

GLENCOE — Hennepin County is looking to build a 14-mile-long, light rail line from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis.

It’s not just prospective riders — from Twins’ fans to suburban workers — who are weighing in on the Southwest Light Rail Transitway.

Rail shippers as far west as Sisseton and Milbank, S.D., to points east of Glencoe, Minn., as well as local governments along the way, have sent letters to the Metropolitan Council expressing their concerns about the project.

They are concerned that the current plans to reroute the existing freight rail line into St. Paul to accommodate the light rail line will adversely affect the Twin Cities & Western Railroad, headquartered in Glencoe.

The reroute alignment contained in the recently released draft environmental impact statement for the project would greatly increase operational costs for the railroad, according to Mark Wegener, company president.

The topography and design of the new route would force the railroad to make changes ranging from adding a locomotive to reducing the number of cars per run. “All kinds of things, all of them being more expensive than what we do right now,’’ he said.

Now that a draft environmental impact statement has been issued, the Metropolitan Council has invited the company to a meeting to discuss its concerns. Wegner said the company had asked for such a meeting two years ago, when this alternative route for freight rail traffic was first included in the plan developed by the Hennepin County Rail Authority.

Seeing that the same route remains in the newly issued draft environmental impact statement is disappointing, said Wegner. “If our reactions seem a bit overreacting, it’s because they weren’t listening to us.’’

The railroad has contracted with an engineering firm and developed a detailed analysis of the economic hardships the new route would cause.

The TC & W line runs parallel to U.S. Highway 212. The company also operates the Minnesota Prairie Line, a short line running from Dawson to Hamburg. And recently, it purchased a 37-mile line running from Milbank to Sisseton in northeastern South Dakota.

Add it all together, and the rail line plays a major role in the economy of western and southern Minnesota. Wegner said the company handles more than 25,000 cars of freight from the region each year. It handles more than $1 billion worth of goods, carrying everything from corn and soybeans to mined rock and canned foods, as well as bringing fertilizer, lumber and other products to the region.

Shippers served by the TC & W rely on it for access to markets and connections through the Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines. Wegner noted that three of its shippers recently invested in unit train handling facilities.  

The TC & W has track rights to its existing route through the Twin Cities, and will hold on to them unless a suitable, alternative route can be provided. Wegner said he is also hopeful that the federal transit agencies would act to protect shippers and require maintaining the economic status quo for freight shippers.

To date, Wegner is aware of more than 60 letters sent by shippers and governmental units to the Metropolitan Council about their concerns.

Document 1:

Twin Cities & Western Rail Map by West Central Tribune

Document 2:

Light Rail Map by West Central Tribune

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335