By Carolyn Lange, West Central Tribune
WILLMAR — With 4,500 miles of track and a long history that stretches back 150 years, Minnesota is a state that’s rich in railroads.
It’s currently ranked eighth in the state in the number of rail miles.
While impressive, it’s about half of what it used to be during the glory years prior to World War II, said John Apitz, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, who was in Willmar on Friday to talk about the industry’s safety record and impact on the economy. The event was sponsored by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
According to Apitz, there are 4,600 railroad employees in Minnesota and 15,000 railroad retirees.
“Willmar is a railroad town,” Apitz said, with about 200 railroad employees working here.
The industry pays $50 million in property taxes every year, with about 60 percent coming back to communities, he said.
Taking advantage of an opportunity to make his case to Rep. Dave Baker and Sen. Andrew Lang, who were at the meeting, Apitz spoke against a proposal by Gov. Dayton to increase taxes on railroads.
Apitz also urged legislators to allow railroads to have their own officers with police powers. Minnesota is one of two states that does not allow railroad police officers, he said.
Willmar residents’ relationship with the railroad may depend on what side of the tracks they’re on.
Amy McBeth, the public affairs coordinator for BNSF Railway, acknowledged that many people may only see the negative side when they’re waiting to cross an at-grade crossing while a train goes by.
Willmar is “one of our big locations in the state,” said McBeth, who gives credit to the BNSF employees who work out of the Willmar yard. “Willmar is an important place for us on the network.”
Plans to install a railroad bypass on the west edge of Willmar will help reduce the number of trains coming into the downtown Willmar train yard and will reduce the time people spending waiting for trains, she said.
The Willmar Wye project, as it’s known, also includes rail access to the Willmar Industrial Park.
In the last four years, BNSF invested $700 million in Minnesota to significantly increase the rail network to handle a high demand for rail that soared when crude oil was being pumped out of North Dakota in large quantities and farmers had bumper crops, McBeth said.
Since the peak in 2006, however, rail demand has declined as more oil is transported through pipelines and less coal is being used.
Customer demand is inching back up, McBeth said. Although the total number of units shipped by BNSF in 2016 was about 5 percent less company-wide than in 2015, she said demand for shipping grain by rail continues to be strong.
“We’re seeing those swings happen more frequently than in recent past,” McBeth said.
The company will spend about $85 million in capital improvements this year in Minnesota, which will be dedicated to maintenance, she said.
According to a 2016 study sponsored by BNSF, freight rail is responsible for $40 billion of Minnesota’s gross domestic product and since 2014 was instrumental in helping 16 new or expanded businesses find a home here, including the Glacial Plains Co-op in Murdock.
The BNSF Foundation has given nearly $1.8 million to local charities since 2012, including $35,000 to the Willmar Destination Playground project slated to be built next month at Robbins Island.
Improving the overall safety of hauling freight on railroads — especially following high-profile cases involving the volatile Bakken crude oil — has been a big priority, Apitz said.
According to the railroad association, rail accidents have dropped by 44 percent since 2000.
McBeth said 2016 was the “all-time best safety record” for BNSF, which had the lowest number of mainline derailments in the company’s history. “Safety is the most important thing that we do,” she said. “We’re an extremely safe industry.”