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Updates on Multi-Tracking the Two BNSF Transcons

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Posted by Vermontanan2 on Monday, August 14, 2023 5:28 PM

SD60MAC9500

For Great Lakes bound coal. I had always hoped the Tongue River connection would've been built. Sending loaded coal via the TR and an upgraded Sidney Line would've made a great shortcut for PRB coal to the docks at Superior, WI, instead of the current routing.

The Tongue River railroad always seemed to be a no-brainer.  From the mines around Decker, Montana, loaded trains climbed out of the Tongue River drainage on a 1.25% grade to the main line east of Sheridan (at Dutch) and then plummeted back into the same drainage at Sheridan, and then climbed out again on a similar grade on the hill at Parkman.  Plus many extra miles.

But back in the day (1970s/1980s), BN was investing a buttload of money in the Powder River Basin and had to make hard choices.  I always thought BN never got the credit it deserved for providing the country the infrastructure it needed when the coal boom took hold.

Same for the Glendive-Snowden line, except it would just be an upgrade and not new construction.  As for coal trains using that route, it was 50 to 60 miles longer to Superior depending on the alternate route.  The route just kind of evolved as coal traffic picked up and included the awkward situation where the roundhouse was in Glendive, but the train inspections (as well as adding back fill cars) were done in Mandan.  The roundhouse at Glendive (and the yard) were beyond the switch to the Sidney line for a loaded coal train.  As Dan pointed out, the route via Mandan/Bismarck was "the least-crowded" as this wasn't the transcontinental route, and route east of Snowden through Williston couldn't/ve handled the extra traffic without upgrade (but could now).

Having said that, coal routed via Sidney and Williston would have saved one locomotive over the traditional route as the maximum grade (beyond Glendive) for coal trains would be reduced from 1% to .6%.  Until the mid-2010s, the operation of coal trains east of Glendive entailed cutting a locomotive at Fryburg, ND or east (when the train was by the two steepest grades) and sending it back to Glendive.  Sometimes an actual helper engineer would be used; in distributed power days, the unit would just set out and picked up by a westbound train.  In any event, it was quite cumbersome positioning the power back to Glendive for subsequent trains.  Since then, common practice was to let all the power go through, and in July 2020, the Glendive roundhouse was closed.

The actual superior routing involves trains going the other way.  From Glendive to Sandpoint, Idaho (where the ex-GN and ex-NP routes meet), it's only 4 miles further via Snowden and Havre, than via Billings and Helena.  The routing via Havre and Marias Pass (maximum: a very short 1.2% grade) would be much preferred to adding a rear-end helper at Livingston (1.8% grade) and cutting in a helper midtrain at Helena (2.2% grade).  But like the Tongue River railroad, the overall anticipated usage were the line from Glendive to Snowden upgraded was insufficient weighed against the cost.

--Mark Meyer

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Posted by SD60MAC9500 on Tuesday, August 15, 2023 11:29 PM

Vermontanan2

Having said that, coal routed via Sidney and Williston would have saved one locomotive over the traditional route as the maximum grade (beyond Glendive) for coal trains would be reduced from 1% to .6%.  

 
Thanks for chiming in Mark. That's why I mentioned the theoretical routing. It would reduce the amount of locomotives needed vs the NP across North Dakota. I envisioned sending EB across from Minot via the Devils Lake, Grand Forks, and Lakes Sub. With empties returing to the PRB via the, Brainard, Staples, Jamestown Subs, etc..
Rahhhhhhhhh!!!!
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Posted by Erik_Mag on Tuesday, August 15, 2023 11:39 PM

Vermontanan2

The Tongue River railroad always seemed to be a no-brainer.

I remember hearing a lot of discussion about the Tongue River railroad in 1976. I got a decent look of the route when flying my aunt from Miles City to Sheridan that summer.

Another potential short cut could have been between Harden and Custer/Bighorn, but the savings probably didn't cover the cost to build the line.

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Posted by Vermontanan2 on Wednesday, August 16, 2023 1:37 PM

Erik_Mag

Another potential short cut could have been between Harden and Custer/Bighorn, but the savings probably didn't cover the cost to build the line.

 

Yes, this route from Hardin to Custer along the Big Horn River would have saved about 50 miles, but it likely was never considered because it didn't address the primary reason for the Tongue River Railroad, which was to avoid the steepest grades.  The only large mines were at Decker and Spring Creek (northeast of Sheridan, WY) and without the Tongue River Railroad, loads for places like Minnesota and Wisconsin had to tackle the 1.25% grade to the main line at Dutch, drop back into the Tongue River drainage at Sheridan (on a 1.6% grade no less), and then tackle the 1.25% grade from Ranchester to Parkman.  A short cut from Hardin to Custer wouldn't have changed this.

In the end, the short "new" line built from the mines to the main line at Dutch (east of Sheridan) was not only cheaper, but would still have been necessary to allow access for trains destined to places like Missouri and Texas.  

All this suggests that in the end, the powers-to-be decided that there wouldn't be the volume of traffic to justify construction of the new line, and it really wouldn't be useful for anything else but coal.  

One line that was built in the area was the 38-mile Sarpy Creek branch south from the ex-NP main line near Hysham.  Like the proposed Tongue River Railroad, it is pretty much all downhill from the mine northeast of Hardin to the Yellowstone River, and then to Glendive.  However, its lone customer now is the Sherco power plants near Becker, Minnesota, which are set to all be decommissioned by 2030.  It used to supply the Big Stone power plant in South Dakota near Ortonville, MN.  These used to be the only regular coal trains on the ex-Milwaukee across South Dakota, but now the plant gets its coal from a Wyoming mine, and trains operate via Lincoln, NE and Willmar, MN.

--Mark Meyer

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Posted by MidlandMike on Wednesday, August 16, 2023 9:59 PM

Vermontanan2
... These used to be the only regular coal trains on the ex-Milwaukee across South Dakota, but now the plant gets its coal from a Wyoming mine, and trains operate via Lincoln, NE and Willmar, MN.

What traffic is left on the ex-MILW line?

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Posted by Vermontanan2 on Wednesday, August 16, 2023 11:29 PM

MidlandMike

What traffic is left on the ex-MILW line?

Here’s what has historically been the traffic flows on the ex-MILW main, but I can’t vouch for specific present day-to-day operation.
 
There’s a merchandise train between Northtown (Minneapolis) and Laurel, Montana (and vice versa).  In addition to single car shipments, it handles auto racks for the auto facility at Laurel.  It picks up and sets out a Willmar, mostly traffic to and from south of Willmar toward Sioux City and Lincoln.  At Aberdeen, it sets out and picks up local traffic.  At Hettinger, ND, they’re the connection for a local primarily serving industries at Gascoyne, North Dakota, but can go as far west as Baker, Montana.
 
There’s a local between Willmar and Aberdeen.  Locals also run in either direction from Aberdeen, east toward Big Stone City (Ethanol plant), south toward Mitchell (including South Dakota’s biggest interchange with RCP&E at Wolsey), and west toward Mobridge.  And then the local at Hettinger as indicated above.
There’s a lot of local business at Aberdeen and nearby.  The giant AGP processing plant northeast of town on the ex-GN line toward Rutland, ND opened in 2020.  There are numerous ethanol plants in the area:
 
There are numerous shuttle grain train facilities along the ex-MILW main line.  The only ones West River are McLaughlin, Lemmon, Bucyrus (ND), and Scranton (ND).  All others are at Selby and east.  There are also numerous facilities south of Aberdeen on the route to Sioux City via Mitchell as well as east of Mitchell toward Canton and Sioux Falls.  BNSF shuttle trains are loaded at four facilities on the RCP&E west of Wolsey and at three on the Ringneck and Western west of Mitchell.  Some of these locations also are equipped to accommodate unit fertilizer trains.  Any shuttle grain train in South Dakota billed to the Pacific Northwest could be routed via the ex-MILW main line, but for locations east of Aberdeen and east and south of Mitchell, they can also be rerouted east and northeast to Willmar and Benson, and then to the Northern Transcontinental to avoid helpers on MRL.
 
And then, of course, there are all the corresponding empties trains going to all these various facilities.  So, it’s all about demand in the Ag sector and that varies with the season.
 
--Mark Meyer
 
 
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Posted by Erik_Mag on Thursday, August 17, 2023 12:38 AM

Vermontanan2

One line that was built in the area was the 38-mile Sarpy Creek branch south from the ex-NP main line near Hysham.

I remember seeing that line under construction ca 1973. My most recent trip by it was in April to attend the funeral of my aunt who I flew to Sheridan in 1976. The rails still had a shine.

One difference between that line and the others is that it was built to serve a mine that oterwise would not have had rail access. I'm guessing that there might have been more mines served by that had Montana not imposed the 30% coal severance tax.

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Posted by MikeF90 on Sunday, October 1, 2023 6:46 PM

On the southern transcon, the latest section of second track has been activated between Chelsea and CP El Dorado MP 172.8.  Further grading for the final second track segment from W. Augusta to East Jct continues.

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Posted by kgbw49 on Monday, October 2, 2023 8:27 AM

Thank you, MikeF90!

BNSF just keeps plugging away on capacity expansion.

The second bridge over the Missouri River at Sibley, MO is gradually working its way to construction.

 

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Posted by Tunnel on Tuesday, October 10, 2023 12:04 PM


Do you have information on the DT project in Texas from the Alliance Yard south to Fort Worth to Cleburn, Rio Vista and Blum? 

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Posted by kgbw49 on Friday, October 27, 2023 6:49 AM

BNSF just keeps plugging away on capacity improvements.

There are several interesting short videos embedded in this article.

https://bnsf.com/news-media/railtalk/service/west-coast-commitment.html

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Posted by rdamon on Tuesday, October 31, 2023 3:14 PM

Some good photos of the new North 1st Ave. bridge over the BNSF tracks in Barstow.

https://www.gosbcta.com/project/north-first-avenue-bridge-over-bnsf-railroad-project/

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