Adventures on the Soo Line in North Dakota

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 18, 2010

I nominate as the most underappreciated main line in America that of the former Soo Line, from Minneapolis northwest to the Canadian border at Portal, N.D. Now operated as part of Canadian Pacific (Soo Line Corp. survives only as the holding company for the U.S. property), it sees seven to eight freights each way a day, including Chicago-Vancouver, B.C. intermodal runs 198 and 199.

What’s so special about the old Soo? Three of the four subdivisions from Minneapolis to Portal are dispatched by Track Warrant Control, meaning that the dispatcher issues verbal instructions to crews on meeting other trains. So if you tune your radio to AAR channels 65 (161.085) and 84 (161.37) you’ll know in advance where trains will meet and roughly when. (Minneapolis to Glenwood, Minn., 120 miles, is run by Centralized Traffic Control.)

So heavy, sometimes underpowered trains running at speeds of no more than 49 mph that stop to line and reline switches at every meet and to pick up and set out cars frequently en route are a recipe for happiness if you are engaged in trainwatching. Nothing will get away from you, I promise. It can take 48 hours or more for trains to travel these 550 miles. One grain train I passed could make no better time than 15 mph. Another train I saw at 7 p.m., and by 10 the next morning I overtook it just 153 miles to the east, getting ready to leave Glenwood. 

And don’t complain to me about North Dakota landscapes. Over a profile that is admittedly pretty flat, there’s plenty of great topography. Not to be missed by anyone is the incredible bridge at Valley City, N.D., where BNSF Railway’s former Northern Pacific main line crosses the Sheyenne River and the Soo Line on a 3,860-foot steel structure more than 160 feet in the air. It was my good fortune to get out of my car in the park beneath the bridge just as a loaded BNSF coal train trundled overhead. By the same token, the countryside northwest of Minot, N.D., is very attractive.

Canadian Pacific built more than 160 miles from Moose Jaw to North Portal, Sask., to meet the Soo. If you want flat land, bring your passport, talk your way past the Canadian border guards and drive beside the railroad through the Saskatchewan prairie. But be prepared to be politely hassled . . . that is, questioned at great length and searched . . . at the border in both directions; these people are not railfan friendly.

I guess you can deduce from this that I had an enjoyable time alongside the old Soo. Would I like to repeat this four-day adventure northwest to Portal? Absolutely. If I’ve talked you into a trip, email me at and I’ll send you an extract from the CP timetable containing station pages for these subdivisions.

More on today's Soo Line in a future column in Trains. And I hope as well to write about the passenger trains that once plied this lonely stretch of railroad.—Fred W. Frailey 

Photos: Carrington, N.D. (top); on the Newtown Branch at Drake, N.D. (middle) and near Anamoose, N.D. (bottom).

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