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BNSF subdivision traffic in MN/North Dakota

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BNSF subdivision traffic in MN/North Dakota
Posted by BurlingtonNorthern2264 on Monday, August 30, 2021 9:01 PM

Recently I was checking a BNSF subdivision map and I'm wondering about the history and current train frequencies of several BNSF subdivisions. 

 

First off is BNSF's main lines through North Dakota. I know that the Dickinson and Jamestown subs are the former NP main and like most of the NP transcon I believe they are secondary status.

I also know that the KO Sub is the primary main line. Where does the Devils Lake sub fit into all this? I know Amtrak uses it, but where is it in train count and importance compared to the other two main lines? I also don't know if either the KO sub or the Devils Lake sub are the former GN main, was one of them originally a secondary main line?

 

I also want to know the history of the Brainerd Subdivision, I'm not sure if it's an old NP or GN line. I'm pretty sure the Lakes and Grand Forks subdivisions are former GN.

And finally, the Hillsboro subdivision. It runs up from Moorhead to Grand Forks, and does it simply serve as a feeder line for trains that need to go up to Grand Forks and points west on the Devils Lake sub?

 

Any help and information would be appreciated. It seems redundant for BNSF to have 3 main lines across most of North Dakota. It also probably explains why the track is so rough in eastern N. D. when riding the Empire Builder, BNSF doesn't maintain it as much due to it being a secondary main line.

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Posted by MidlandMike on Tuesday, August 31, 2021 9:25 PM

When Devils Lake level was rising about ten years ago Amtrak contributed quite a bit to raise the track.  Shortly after that was done, the Bakken oil boom made the line busy as a relief for the Northern Transcon.  Don't know if it is still as busy.

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Posted by DanRaitz on Wednesday, September 1, 2021 10:30 AM

FYI,  this gives a brief timeline of all the BNSF divisions.  There is a lot of info to dig through but it is there.

 

BNSF Track Segment Listings (nprha.org)

 

Dan

If women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy .... Red Green
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Posted by Vermontanan2 on Friday, September 3, 2021 5:33 PM
BurlingtonNorthern2264
Recently I was checking a BNSF subdivision map and I'm wondering about the history and current train frequencies of several BNSF subdivisions. 
First off is BNSF's main lines through North Dakota. I know that the Dickinson and Jamestown subs are the former NP main and like most of the NP transcon I believe they are secondary status.
I also know that the KO Sub is the primary main line. Where does the Devils Lake sub fit into all this? I know Amtrak uses it, but where is it in train count and importance compared to the other two main lines? I also don't know if either the KO sub or the Devils Lake sub are the former GN main, was one of them originally a secondary main line?
Since being completely rebuilt during the Bakken Oil Boom of the 2010s, the Hillsboro subdivision (Fargo to Grand Forks) and Devils Lake subdivision (Grand Forks to Surrey/Minot) has been used as an alternate main line with westbound trains operating via Devils Lake and eastbound trains via New Rockford.  Higher priority trains, regardless of direction, tend to use the shorter New Rockford line (KO subdivision), and there are of course exceptions based on origin/destination.
The route through Devils Lake is the original GN (or, at the time, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba) completed 1880 through 1886; the route through New Rockford (Surrey cutoff) was completed in 1912.  It became the primary transcontinental main line, including (for freight) the route from Nolan through Casselton to Wahpeton which bypassed Fargo.
BurlingtonNorthern2264
I also want to know the history of the Brainerd Subdivision, I'm not sure if it's an old NP or GN line. I'm pretty sure the Lakes and Grand Forks subdivisions are former GN.
Yes, the Grand Forks and Lakes subdivisions are ex-Great Northern.  The Brainerd subdivision is ex-NP, part of the original NP main line; The NP was chartered to build from the “Head of the Lakes” (Lake Superior) to Puget Sound.
BurlingtonNorthern2264
And finally, the Hillsboro subdivision. It runs up from Moorhead to Grand Forks, and does it simply serve as a feeder line for trains that need to go up to Grand Forks and points west on the Devils Lake sub?
Again, the Hillsboro line is part of the alternate main line between Fargo and Minot, but is also part of BNSF “Mid-Continent” corridor from Winnipeg to the Gulf Coast.  BNSF has significant interchange with CN at Noyes, MN and to a lesser extent, CP.  Also, lots of agriculture-oriented unit train activity around Grand Forks as well as on the Hillsboro and Devils Lake subdivisions and their associated branch lines.
If you’re interested, check this out, it was created in 2016, but is still relevant:

--Mark Meyer

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Posted by Vermontanan2 on Friday, September 3, 2021 5:34 PM
MidlandMike
When Devils Lake level was rising about ten years ago Amtrak contributed quite a bit to raise the track.  Shortly after that was done, the Bakken oil boom made the line busy as a relief for the Northern Transcon.  Don't know if it is still as busy.
“Quite a bit” is a relative term, I suppose, but it was minimal compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars BNSF spent to completely redo the route from Fargo to Minot via Hillsboro and Devils Lake.  And the boom was not shortly after the track raising was done; It was going full bore a couple of years before (starting in 2008).  The reverse is actually true in that the vastly increased traffic as a result of the Bakken Boom was the catalyst for fixing the situation with Devils Lake (the lake).  Prior to this, BNSF was holding out to get some outside money for the project knowing that (boom or no boom) it would probably happen as retaining service on the route was politically popular, regardless of party affiliation. BNSF ended up working on the project well before monies from Amtrak and government entities were in place.
The actual amount that Amtrak supposedly paid was 32.33 million dollars.  This would be one-third of the $97 million that was needed to raise the track and rebuild bridges between Devils Lake (the city) and Churchs Ferry.  BNSF paid a third, and the state was going to pay a third, which it did primary through grants, like TIGER.  The reason I say “supposedly” was that Amtrak – always short of money for just about anything – didn’t have the funding at the time (2011), and BNSF “loaned” the money to Amtrak.  I imagine Amtrak did pay its share, but I recall learning from a trusted BNSF company officer that BNSF was going forward with the project regardless of Amtrak’s ability to pay. 
In the end, BNSF completely rebuilt the railroad between Fargo and Surrey via Devils Lake.  Raising the railroad to a point higher than the lake could ever be got all the publicity, but new ties, welded rail, CTC (instead of its crumbling ABS) and numerous additional sidings and siding extensions were really the big-ticket items.

--Mark Meyer

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Posted by dpeltier on Friday, September 3, 2021 10:48 PM

BurlingtonNorthern2264

Recently I was checking a BNSF subdivision map and I'm wondering about the history and current train frequencies of several BNSF subdivisions. 

 

First off is BNSF's main lines through North Dakota. I know that the Dickinson and Jamestown subs are the former NP main and like most of the NP transcon I believe they are secondary status.

I also know that the KO Sub is the primary main line. Where does the Devils Lake sub fit into all this? I know Amtrak uses it, but where is it in train count and importance compared to the other two main lines? I also don't know if either the KO sub or the Devils Lake sub are the former GN main, was one of them originally a secondary main line?

The predecessor of the Great Northern was the Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba. As the name implies, it's original goal was to reach Manitoba and connect with the Canadian Pacific. The decision to build west across North Dakota and into Montana came a little bit later, and was accomplished by building west from Grand Forks - today's Devils Lake sub.

Decades later, the KO sub (aka the Surrey Cutoff aka the New Rockford Cutoff) was built from Fargo (near where the airport is today) to Surrey (just east of Minot) so that Twin Cities traffic could get to Minot and points west without having to go up through Hillsboro, Grand Forks, and Devils Lake. That cutoff then became the primary freight route line.

After the BN merger, the far east end of the KO sub was rerouted between Casselton and Fargo to use the NP route.

BurlingtonNorthern2264

I also want to know the history of the Brainerd Subdivision, I'm not sure if it's an old NP or GN line. I'm pretty sure the Lakes and Grand Forks subdivisions are former GN.

The Northern Pacific was constructed starting in Duluth and going west to Fargo. They later built a branch southwest from this line starting in Staples and going southeast to the Twin Cities. Today, this branch plus the original line from Staples west to (almost) Fargo is the Staples Sub, while the original line east of Staples is called the Brained Sub.

Footnote: technically, what is now the Staples Sub includes some GN track as well. The NP and GN had adjacent, parallel tracks from northeast Minneapolis to the near where the St. Cloud, MN Amtrak station is today. So Main 2 between these locations is former GN while Main 1 is former NP.

Footnote to the footnote: actually, there's a shortish stretch of Main 1 near Becker, MN that is a actually the former GN track. That's because a portion of the former Main 1 was removed at one point as a cost saving measure, leaving the former GN track as a single main line. Then when the second main was reinstalled in 2015, a portion was constructed on the opposite side of the single track (former Main 2, former GN track) from where the original Main 1 track (former NP) had been. That made the former single main (former Main 2, former GN) into the new Main 1, while the newly constructed track became the new Main 2.

BurlingtonNorthern2264

And finally, the Hillsboro subdivision. It runs up from Moorhead to Grand Forks, and does it simply serve as a feeder line for trains that need to go up to Grand Forks and points west on the Devils Lake sub?

Mostly. But in addition to traffic off the Lakes and Devils Lake subs, Grand Forks also processes significant traffic from the CP and CN interchanges at Notes, MN, much of which then goes down the Hillsboro sub towards Northtown.

Another way to look at it is that the Hillsboro Sub is part of a north / south route that stretches from Winnipeg to the Gulf of Mexico - the only such north / south route between the front range of the Rockies and the Mississippi River.

BurlingtonNorthern2264

Any help and information would be appreciated. It seems redundant for BNSF to have 3 main lines across most of North Dakota. It also probably explains why the track is so rough in eastern N. D. when riding the Empire Builder, BNSF doesn't maintain it as much due to it being a secondary main line.

 

The track in eastern North Dakota sometimes gets rough due to nonexistent drainage and week soils. The Hillsboro Sub is located on the alluvial soils of the incredibly wide Red River floodplain. The Devil's Lake sub goes through the equally flat former Lake Agassiz basin, again on silty sediment over a hundred feet deep. These soils are all very susceptible to frost heaves, in an area where the frost line is usually assumed to be around 8' deep.

And I'm not sure why you assume the KO sub, which has many of the same issues, would give you a better ride quality.

Ride quality did improve dramatically for the Empire Builder when the remaining jointed rail on the Devils Lake sub was replaced with ribbon rail in 2013. This was part of the public-private partnership that others have referred to in this thread.

As for having three mainlines: eastern North Dakota produces a lot of ag-related traffic. Each of the three mainlines there has its own on-line industries AND its own network of branch lines. There's really no way to consolidate the flows of local traffic. The only part that's at all redundant is the Devil's Lake sub, which was briefly disconnected as a freight mainline from 2009 - 2013. But even then, only 15 miles was removed from service. The remainder was needed to serve profitable branch lines.

Dan

(I'm a BNSF employee, but these views are mine, not BNSF's.)

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Posted by dpeltier on Saturday, September 4, 2021 12:13 AM

Vermontanan2
 
MidlandMike
When Devils Lake level was rising about ten years ago Amtrak contributed quite a bit to raise the track.  Shortly after that was done, the Bakken oil boom made the line busy as a relief for the Northern Transcon.  Don't know if it is still as busy.
 
“Quite a bit” is a relative term, I suppose, but it was minimal compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars BNSF spent to completely redo the route from Fargo to Minot via Hillsboro and Devils Lake.
 

 
I'm pretty sure it wasn't "hundreds of millions", nor did BNSF "completely redo" the Devils Lake and Hillsboro subs. The actual cost of the capacity improvement on those subs depends a lot on how you account for the cost of installing PTC. If you say that PTC was an inevitable result of the fact that Amtrak was running on the line in 2011, then the cost of the public / private partnership work accounted for the majority of all the improvements.
 
Keep in mind that the $100M that was split three ways between Amtrak, state / federal funds, and BNSF funds not only paid for the track raise, but for replacing all the remaining jointed rail on the DL main line. I don't recall the exact breakdown, but I think something like 1/4 - 1/3 of that $100M was just for new rail.
 
So beyond the PTC, the track raise, and the ribbon rail, the remaining capacity upgrades were:
  - one siding extension and six CTC islands on the DL sub
  - three siding extensions, two new sidings, and five CTC islands on the Hillsboro Sub.
 
$10M is a very conservative estimate for a whole new siding in that part of the world, at least in 2012 dollars. The CTC islands weren't nearly as expensive as you would expect, because almost every single piece of ABS equipment out there was over 50 years old and needed to be completely replaced to implement PTC. Turning some locations into control points instead was not that big of a marginal cost increase. The only caveat to that: there were (IIRC) two sidings on the DL that had jointed rail. We chose to relay those with ribbon rail versus leaving them "unbounded" (no track circuit, restricted speed operations) or installing hundreds of bond wires at the joints. That rail relay cost some $. Other than that, maybe $2M for CTC at a siding, a little bit more if long access roads were needed to reach the propane tanks that power the switch heaters.
 
So if you do the math, you see that the expansion projects added up to less the cost of the track raise.
 
The control points at the existing sidings were laid out so that any existing low-speed (#11 turnouts) could be upgraded to 40-mph, #20 turnouts in the future with no signal changes, but the turnouts were not upgraded as part of the project. I believe that, since that.time, they all have been upgraded in the course of normal maintenance.
 
 
As it happens, I was the project manager at BNSF for the design phase of all of these projects including the track raise, and also managed the construction for the DL sidings and one of the Hillsboro sidings. (At BNSF, managing the construction typically means overseeing the civil work, which is contracted out, and then trying desperately to get the BNSF track and signal departments to pull in the same direction.) Other people managed the construction of the track raise (including the replacement of two bridges) and the construction of the other four siding projects on the Hillsboro sub. At the same time I was working on Glasgow Sub expansion projects in Minot, Williston, and everywhere in between. It was a really exciting time to be a person who loves building railroad.
 
Later on, AFTER these projects were complete, someone finally woke up to the fact that you could convert the DL and Hillsboro subs, with all their brand-new Electrocode circuits, to full CTC at minimal cost. A few electric locks on some mainline hand-throw switches, some software changes, and suddenly you didn't need a track warrant to get from one siding to the next.
 
Regarding whether BNSF would have gone down the same path if they hadn't gotten outside funding: in 2011 or 2012, the BNSF strategic studies group put together cost / benefit analyses for restoring the DL sub and upgrading both DL and Hillsboro, versus installing several segments of double track on the KO sub. I did see the results of these studies. I can't tell you what they said for obvious reasons, but I can tell you that the $66M in outside funding weighed heavily on those calculations.
 
Dan Peltier
I'm a BNSF employee but the views in this post are strictly my own, not BNSF's.
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Posted by dpeltier on Saturday, September 4, 2021 12:54 AM

Vermontanan2
Since being completely rebuilt during the Bakken Oil Boom of the 2010s, the Hillsboro subdivision (Fargo to Grand Forks) and Devils Lake subdivision (Grand Forks to Surrey/Minot) has been used as an alternate main line with westbound trains operating via Devils Lake and eastbound trains via New Rockford.  Higher priority trains, regardless of direction, tend to use the shorter New Rockford line (KO subdivision), and there are of course exceptions based on origin/destination.
 

 
My understanding is that the original "directional running" implemented in 2013 has largely gone away. I think most trains are back to taking the KO sub by default, but they can and do reroute things through Grand Forks when there is a reason to do so. The most common reason would be to avoid maintenance windows windows on the KO. That is a huge benefit to the folks doing track and bridge maintenance on a busy single-track railroad.
 
Dan
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Posted by BurlingtonNorthern2264 on Saturday, September 4, 2021 6:49 PM
Fantastic replies, good to hear lots of history on these lines and it helps me understand the track layout and history of the eastern ND/northwest MN area.
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Posted by Vermontanan2 on Sunday, September 5, 2021 7:15 PM

Dan:

Thanks for the insight.  Thanks for your explanation.  It's the first time I had heard that the state/Amtrak money had anything to do with anything besides raising the track between Devils Lake and Churchs Ferry - especially since since the signal system had been terrorizing Amtrak trains for years due to its instability.  And yes, PTC would be included in the cost because had the bridges not been raised, Amtrak (and the need for PTC) would not be there.

As the North Region Locomotive Manager at BNSF for the entire Bakken Boom, my team and I were reminded daily on the "billions" spent to upgrade the routes in North Dakota whenever the many ballast and ribbonrail trains were delayed enroute to the the construction sites (while trying to power all the revenue trains associated with the boom), but I had no specific breakdown in cost.

My group did have input on the Devils Lake versus KO upgrade question and we - along with just about everyone in operations at the time - voted for the Devils Lake route.  For years prior to the upgrading of the line, the (unnecessary - just waiting for the inevitable money from outside parties) embargo of the Devils Lake-to-Churchs Ferry portion, was a sore spot.  Grain from Bisbee billed to Superior and from Mayville going to the West Coast cost extra crews, additional power and car cycle time, and - especially amidst the boom traffic - congested yards like Minot (reversing direction) or Fargo (positioning to the coal connector).  And of course it was all the better for the crude and other traffic on the increase at Noyes which would need to go on Hillisboro.  (I remember a Corridor Superintendent telling me that the new siding at Bison was his favorite siding of all time, because there was now someplace to meet - with power switches - just outside the Fargo terminal).  Just keeping this traffic out of these terminals is a huge, but largely unquantified cost.  And I'm sure you know that one of the Achilles' Heel of studies is that they often do not include ALL the costs, with some important - but often not obvious ones - not included.

While I'm sure that the outside money further tilted the decision in favor of the Devils Lake route, I know that public perception had a lot to do with it too.  To BNSF's credit, they are cognizant of their reputation, and more so with the Empire Builder, seen by local communities as vital.  (And the Southwest Chief debacle between Trinidad, CO and Lamy, NM shows BNSF's willingness to appease local and political enities to keep the passenger train where it is; the difference for the Devils Lake route is that it really does have online business and trains where that route is better than the alternative.)  And, in the fifty years since Amtrak was created, this was far from the first time the Devils Lake route has been threatened, yet it has endured.  Just plucking a timetable from my collection, I see that in 1982, the railroad from Devils Lake to Surrey had only 3 miles where 70 MPH was allowed for passenger trains; the remainder was 60 and 50 MPH.  Somewhere after that, that rail was replaced with ribbonrail and the speed raised, but the point simply is that the Devils Lake line had been dangling on shoestring for decades, and it wasn't until the combination of unprecedented business and the creation of an inland sea resulted in what seems to be a permanent fix - or as permanent as we get nowadays.

Again, thank's for breakdown and clarification.  Indeed, the Bakken Boom was an exciting time to live through, especially for those of us around in the 1980s when traffic was down, and the railroad wanted to seemingly jettison everything (and with it, everybody).

--Mark Meyer

 

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Posted by htgguy on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 10:15 AM

The discussion of the DL Sub is interesting to me, as my son lives along that line. Matter of fact, I just spent some time along the tracks over Labor Day weekend. Traffic is light, probably averaged 3 or 4 trains during daylight but westbounds are easy to chase as they are working hard on the grade away from the Red River. I noticed that there must be a tie replacement gang in the area as there are lots of ties along the tracks and equipment was sitting just outside Larimore. 

There hasn't been much discussion about the future of the Brainerd Sub in this thread. With the decline in coal traffic and no paper mill in Brainerd anymore it seems like this line may become expendable in the future. It would be a shame for the original Northern Pacific to go away but duplicate routes across Northern Minnesota seem like a place where cuts could happen if/when coal traffic goes away. Not much else that the Brainerd is really crucial for. 

Jim

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Posted by NP Eddie on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 5:44 PM

I don't know the traffic on the Brainerd Sub as I severed from the BNSF 2000, retired in 2004.

Ed Burns

Retired clerk from Northtown.

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