- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

ROSS, N.D. (AP) - The small incorporated hamlet of Ross is squeezed by one of North Dakota’s busiest highways on one side and railroad line on the other.

In between U.S. High-way 2 and the BNSF Railway is just enough room for a few houses, a heavy slot of oil boom campers and an industrial zone that benefits from both transport modes.

All day long at Ross, it’s freight in, freight out and the sounds of train horns blaring, semitrailers braking, iron wheels rumbling down the track and 18-wheelers slapping the highway.

If that weren’t enough for a town with dirt streets that are rutted and ragged - partly because oil workers have swelled the population from 50 people to 600 - the railroad is laying new track alongside town. The project is its most ambitious expansion here since the days when the railroad was built with steam shovels and men swinging pick axes.

A second, side-by-side track will double BNSF’s capacity between Minot and Glendive, Montana, and hopefully unclog congestion, at least through the Bakken.

The railway’s been under some pressure to get better service to elevators to move grain out and fertilizer in. It reported this month that it was still running an average of 26 days late.

It’s investing $620 million along the northern corridor route to improve that schedule. Sections of the new track will be usable this year and all of it will be by next year, BNSF spokeswoman Amy Mcbeth told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/QZH5V6 ).

Overall, BNSF invested $4 billion in expansion and maintenance last year and $5 billion this year, exceeding any historical investments in the industry by any railroad, she said.

BNSF is using its existing right of way for the most part and the track is installed with a gigantic piece of specialized machinery that can throw down a concrete rail tie every eight seconds and then pass over with the iron track, Mcbeth said.

For some living along the line, the railway is a neighbor that can’t be ignored because it’s loud and constantly in the way. For others, it’s an indispensable business partner.

Like it or not, it’s now showing up an average of 36 times a day, often pulling 100-car tanker trains loaded with Bakken crude. With another track, that number will only increase. Mcbeth said the railroad isn’t forecasting what that increase could be, only “that we’ve identified a need for additional capacity.”

She said about half of the trains carry consumer goods traveling the main route between Chicago and Pacific ports.

For people like Greg Bruhn, who has farmland east of Ross near Blaisdell, another small nearby town, the railroad falls into the first category, an unwelcome neighbor.

The family farm was split off by the railroad and he has to cross it just behind Blaisdell to get home a mile away. He said backed up trains sometimes block the direct route for a couple of hours, forcing him to find a way to go around it.

“A guy can sit there a long time waiting to get across. That’s been going on for years. The upside of the double track is they won’t be blocking the crossing, but there will be more trains. I don’t know if it’s an up or downside,” Bruhn said. “They blow their horn starting on the other side of town all the way through. People here are really fed up when it gets to be 3 a.m.”

He said the railroad needs a two-acre piece of the family land for the track expansion work, but it won’t get it until it provides access to the 180 acres on the other side.

For John Woodbury, manager of Dakota Quality Grain at Ross, a growing grain terminal that recently expanded its storage capacity in towering concrete silos, the railroad falls into that “indispensable” category, a neighbor he couldn’t live without.

In fact, he was waiting for a train scheduled that afternoon to move 24 million pounds of grain out of the terminal to make room for more, filling some of the 1,500 grain cars the elevator moves out in a year’s time.

Ross itself has become an important destination for train freight, with more than 10,000 rail cars a year coming and going from Woodbury’s Dakota Quality Grain, Bakken Transload’s frack sand, propane and oil pipe yard, United Agronomy’s fertilizer plant, Columbia Grain and CTAP LLC oil field services.

Besides the main track - soon to be two main tracks - there are several bypass and siding tracks at the east end of Ross to handle and hold the inbound freight. Ross’s rail yard stays busy.

“At the levels we have got coming in, we actually have literal stop lights out here on the tracks,” Woodbury said.

It’s a double whammy, because with trains come the semitrailers to distribute the unloaded freight. Woodbury said within minutes, a couple dozen semis will be backed up through town and out to the highway when a train blocks the through-roads for even a short time.

“In the days of the ‘old’ Ross, that was not a problem,” he said. “Now it’s so intense and there’s so much activity, you gotta have your ‘A’ game on all the time.”

He said the extra track will improve train fluidity in the area and the backlog has already improved.

“But I see a challenge getting to the next level,” he said. “The new track will fix the problem until the problem grows, but this should help immensely.”

Ross Mayor Wyatt Seibel said the railroad’s got the town up against the wall, but not because of its cramped layout so close to the highway.

Instead, the railroad is insisting the town add steel casing around the sewer line that runs beneath the tracks out to the lagoon.

The railroad also says the casing has to be bored, not excavated, at a cost of around $500,000, which is all the money Ross has in the bank right now.

“There’s no way the city can afford that,” the mayor said.

The clock is ticking because the city has permits for the work that will expire soon.

Auditor Diane Seibel said the railroad will lend Ross the money, but payments would be $24,000 a month. She said despite requests for oil impact funds, there never seems to be money available for the smallest towns in the oil patch.

“That (project) would bankrupt the city. That would take everything we have,” she said.

Mcbeth says BNSF works with communities on a case-by-case basis when there are utilities in question.

“In the case of Ross, we have been discussing potential loan options,” she said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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