By Associated Press - Monday, March 24, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin’s train transport industry faces reliability and safety problems brought on by the harsh winter, congestion and federal limits on crews’ hours, the state’s top railroad official told the Wisconsin State Journal.

The rail industry is growing, spurred in part by frac sand production, the newspaper reported . Canadian National, for example, has invested about $68 million upgrading or adding infrastructure, including lines in central and northern Wisconsin, to help it handle sand mining shipments.

Wisconsin also has emerged as a crossroads for trains hauling Asian products from harbors in British Columbia to Chicago as well as trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in Indiana, Pennsylvania and points south, Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale said.

But reliability issues are plaguing the industry. This winter’s frigid temperatures cracked tracks, froze switches and forced more intense safety measures including running trains with fewer cars. The Chicago yard, the hub of the U.S. rail industry, also has seen congestion. It’s all added up to slower delivery times for products.

Madison-based Vita Plus, for example, buys canola meal to use in animal feed from Canada and ships it by rail to Watertown. The shipments are supposed to take two weeks but sometimes taken up to a month to arrive, stretching the company’s resources, said Matt Jorgensen, the assistant general manager of Vita Plus’ Loyal plant in Clark County.

Meanwhile, federal requirements that train crews stop working after eight- or 12-hour shifts have led to operators stopping trains in the middle of crossings, blocking roads and creating potential problems for emergency vehicles. A train was stopped for 27 hours across a Rusk County road recently, forcing an ambulance to take a detour.

Plale said his office has received complaints of trains blocking roads in Caledonia, Oshkosh, Weyauwega, Solon Springs, Chippewa Falls, Auburndale and Marshfield as well.

“At some point it’s going to become detrimental,” Plale said. “If an ambulance can’t get through or a fire truck can’t get through, that’s not a good scenario.”

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