- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. (AP) - Record crop yields and the North Dakota oil boom have led to a significant resurgence of rail transit in South Dakota, and it’s Lynn Kennison’s job to make sure the tracks are safe.

Kennison, a transportation specialist at the state Department of Transportation, inspects the rail lines using a road-rail, or “hi-rail,” vehicle, a specialized truck that can ride on the road and on the tracks. His job will only get more important as the state continues investing in rail infrastructure.

The latest is a $28 million project - backed in part by federal grants - to repair a roughly 42-mile section of mostly derelict track from Chamberlain to Presho, which has spurred tens of millions of dollars in agricultural development.

Kennison and Bruce Lindholm, project manager for the department’s Office of Air, Rail and Transit, showed off the project this month to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx using hi-rail trucks. Kennison and Lindholm have been riding the tracks for at least a decade, searching for missing anchors, loose bolts and broken ties.

On occasion, the state’s hi-rail truck shares the tracks with trains but more frequently with other road-rail vehicles owned by railroad companies doing their own inspections. The state currently has one of the trucks, but Lindholm hopes to get another for the rail rehab project.

The specialized vehicles, which look like modified pickup trucks, are necessary because large sections of the railroad aren’t accessible by car, Lindholm said. They’re also useful for transporting people who are walking down the tracks and inspecting them.

“They’re very important. We have to have (hi-rail vehicles),” Lindholm said. “It doesn’t sound like that much, but when you have to walk 40 miles, it’s quite a ways.”

On top of spotting degrading or broken segments of track, “hi-railing,” as it’s called, affords Kennison and Lindholm a view of South Dakota and its neighboring states typically only available by air.

“I get to see areas of those states that nobody else gets to see,” Kennison said. “The thing that always amazes me is the wildlife that you see and the reaction they have.”

Deer frequently bound alongside the trundling hi-rail truck, which can max out at about 40 mph but typically goes slower. Kennison said ranchers’ herds often follow behind the vehicle because the cattle think they’re about to get fed. Both men list seeing foxes as a gem of riding the rails that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

Shortly before the state and federal officials viewed the rail project, Kennison took the hi-rail truck past a small lake as he headed toward Chamberlain.

“This is by far the best part of the job,” Kennison said. “I don’t care where I hi-rail, as long as I get to hi-rail.”

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