Western Wisconsin CN Rail Revival

Trains are transporting sand for oil drilling from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In 2011, the former Enron — now called EOG Resources — opened one of the largest sand processing plants in the United States on the north edge of Chippewa Falls. Energy companies have since built three more plants to the north, all within 2 miles of New Auburn. A fourth is going up along Old Highway 53.

The construction site with its giant blue silos, towering cranes, workers climbing on rafters, and brand-new rail yard “looks like Valleyfair,” says Jeremy Urlacher, a vice president at Progressive Rail who just moved from the Twin Cities to Chetek so he can keep up with track maintenance.

On a white-sky Wednesday in August, on-and-off showers sprayed across the uneven patchwork of field, forest, lake and wetland around New Auburn, which has become the heart of sand country. Rural Wisconsin chronicler Michael Perry summarized New Auburn at the turn of the millennia by writing, “Maybe that’s all you need to know about this town — the train doesn’t stop here anymore.”

Now the train stops. Hopper cars full of cream-colored sand sit on the tracks for a mile north of town. Progressive just secured a 30-year lease on the rail line and will renovate it for several years. Instead of 2,000 rail cars per year, the line now carries 3,000 cars per month.

Progressive Rail president Dave Fellon sees railroads as the bedrock of the industrial economy, and himself as an industrial developer, trying to persuade companies to expand or build along the rail.

“We are not just focusing on frac,” Fellon said. “The projects I’m working on today are three-quarters non-frac, and a quarter frac. And these are significant industrial development projects, the big ones.”

In aerial photos, ghosts of railroads still trace paths across southeast Minnesota — a tree line angling through a cornfield north of Eyota, a meandering bike trail that connects Red Wing and Cannon Falls.

No rail has been rebuilt there, but if a whole cluster of mines opens for business, the railroads might perk up, said Dave Christianson, a freight and rail planner at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

“St. Charles definitely is the center of projected sand mining,” Christianson said. “You could very easily see some branch lines come off the main line at St. Charles to try to get closer to the mines.”

He puts the odds at 50-50 for rail companies to rebuild old lines in Minnesota. Canadian Pacific has announced no plans to add lines. It already has several deals in Wisconsin along existing tracks.

“It’s evolving,” said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific. “We’re continuing to work with the energy industry on where we can provide efficient and rail-ready service.”  (Source: StarTribune)