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BNSF to lay off staff at Willmar depot

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has announced it is cutting up to 17 from the local switching yard, above, as it looks to weather a year influenced by a poor economy. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Fifteen to 17 jobs in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway switching yard in Willmar are being eliminated as part of an overall reduction in BNSF's switching operations.

Employees were notified this week that they are being furloughed.

BNSF hopes to eventually call them back to work, said Steve Forsberg, general director of public affairs for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

"We just don't know when that's going to be," he said.

The downturn in the economy has resulted in a significant drop in rail traffic volume this year.

Through the third quarter, volume is down 27 percent, Forsberg said.

"All terminals on the network have seen a reduction in the volume that they're handling," he said.

As a result, BNSF is moving to control costs and consolidate its switching activity at fewer terminals, primarily in Dilworth, the Northtown yard in Minneapolis and in Sioux City, Iowa.

Forsberg called it "a short-term redeployment of some of the work."

Willmar will continue to have one person switching traffic in the Willmar rail yard per shift, Forsberg said Tuesday.

Before the downturn in the economy, the Willmar rail yard, which historically has been an important hub, had about 200 workers. The number is now down to about 180, and the furloughs announced this week "will probably reduce that a little bit more," Forsberg said.

"It is something that has been occurring on an ongoing basis," Forsberg said of the layoffs. "We have not reduced our capital investment in maintenance on the network this year."

The decline in rail traffic volume appears to be stabilizing but it's not clear when any substantial improvement might take place, he said.

With 32,000 route miles, Burlington Northern Santa Fe is the second largest railroad in the United States. It is a major hauler of grain and coal, and also transports cars and consumer goods to hubs such as Chicago, Kansas City and the West Coast.

Earlier this month, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway investment group announced a $44 billion cash-and-stock deal to acquire BNSF. The deal is expected to close early next year. It will require shareholder approval and a regulatory review by the Justice Department.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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