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Keeping freight on track

John Apitz addresses attendees of Railroads 2017 Monday, Nov. 6, at Red Wing Ignite. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia

Railroads and Red Wing go way back, with freight running down the lines of the Chicago Great Western since 1905. Today those lines are owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and both freight and passenger trains can be found zooming through Red Wing, day and night.

On Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, the Red Wing Area Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Regional Rail Association hosted a breakfast to address the safety and future of of railways in Minnesota.

Today, there are 3.6 million cars carrying 278 tons of materials through Minnesota each year, amounting to 25 percent of all freight moving through the state.

With the contents of freight cars being varied, from grain to hazardous materials including chemicals for purifying drinking water or fertilizing fields, safety continues to be an important feature of doing business by rail.

CP representative Andy Cummings reported that vehicle collisions with trains are down, but there is growing concern over people who loiter near train tracks for photography sessions.

"Railroads are an industrial zone," Cummings said. "You're subjecting yourself and your client to legal sanction ... and tragedy."

CP has worked with emergency responders in local communities since the 1980s to prepare hazardous materials officers and address what would need to happen if a train derailment were to occur. The most recent training in Red Wing took place this year with the Red Wing Fire Department, simulating an emergency response for a rail car going into the water.

Visual inspection of the rails happens three to four times a week, and some locations, such as Prairie Island, also feature a hotbox, or defect, detector. If an axle or wheel is beginning to heat up, the hotbox detector will alert maintenance to inspect the car.

Railways account for 7 percent of all jobs in Minnesota. Many jobs require a high school education and pay an average of $80,000 per year. Freight rail fosters enough statewide income to generate $7 billion in state and local tax revenue.

"It's our obligation to give back to the folks that work for us and the communities they live in," said John Apitz, MRRA legislative council.

As a result, the Union Pacific Foundation has contributed more than $650,000 to locally based nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and Neighborhood House in St. Paul, and the BNSF Railway Foundation has contributed more than $1 million to Minnesota nonprofits in the last three years, attendees were told Monday.

Trains use 75 percent less fuel and produce lower carbon emissions than trucks, according to Apitz. Railways are also looking at harnessing liquid natural gas as a fuel source for trains in the future, and aiming overall to make freight by rail more environmentally friendly going forward.

When asked about the prospect of a high speed rail line between Chicago and Minneapolis, CP staff members indicated they are engaged in conversation and working through this process collaboratively. They are examining the types of upgrades that are needed to avoid bottlenecks, and they are working to study the impact of taking on additional trains, but ultimately — because passenger rail is not profitable — the final decision rests with state departments of transportation.