WORTHINGTON — Two years after the Ellis & Eastern purchased Minnesota Southern Railway’s lease to operate the short line railroad in Rock and Nobles counties, the company continues to address numerous challenges with the condition of the track.
Owned by the Buffalo Ridge Regional Rail Authority, a joint powers comprised of Rock and Nobles counties, the rail line is in need of upgrades, particularly to a six-mile stretch between Magnolia and Adrian deemed to be in the worst condition.
Dan Kippley, who works in economic and business development for the railroad, appeared before Nobles County commissioners Tuesday seeking support in the railroad’s quest to obtain grants to help repair the line. The county voted unanimously to write a letter of support for the funds.
The rail line being targeted for replacement is considered light rail — 80-pound rail that was installed in 1905 and not able to meet the heavier loads the railroad would hope to transport on the line. The goal is to be able to transport 286,000-pound rail cars on the line.
Kippley said plans are to replace the 80-pound rail with 100- to 115-pound rail, which will make it possible for the railroad to increase both weight loads and rail car movement on the line. Improving the line is anticipated to lead to its expanded use, particularly in hauling ethanol from the plant at Luverne to the Union Pacific rail line at Worthington.
A new mandate requiring rail shippers to use safer rail cars to haul flammable liquids takes effect May 1, 2023, and Kippley said the hope is the line can be ready to meet the new specifications at that time.
Currently, Ellis & Eastern ships approximately 500 cars carrying ethanol on the line per year. By 2023, Kippley said it projects more than 1,500 cars will use the line to meet the demand as the ethanol plant in Luverne has a goal to triple production.
“That would just be one shipper,” Kippley said. “We have other shippers.”
The six-mile stretch of rail line between Magnolia and Adrian has a rail bed that Kippley likened to a marshmallow or a mattress.
“It’s very spongy,” he said, noting train speeds are now under 10 miles per hour to be able to react quickly if and when a car slips off the track. Kippley said there have been a number of derailments — cars slipping off the tracks — and “it’s very unsafe.”
“When a car slips off at less than 5 miles per hour, (the train) stops pretty quickly,” he said. “We’re being very cautious.”
Meanwhile, Ellis & Eastern continues to do smaller repairs, from adding ballasts (rock) to stabilize the rail bed and replacing defective ties on the line.
“The Ellis & Eastern is committed to an aggressive maintenance program. Once we get up to speed, the line will be very efficient and safe and reliable,” Kippley said, adding that as the line improves, it hopes to be able to transport rail cars at speeds of 25 miles per hour.
In order to fund the improvements to the line, Ellis & Eastern will seek grants from multiple sources. Hence, the request for a letter of support from Nobles County.
The railroad is applying for a $25 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant administered by the Federal Railroad Administration. Kippley said $244 million is available to be granted, with $61 million of that specifically earmarked for rural projects. Ellis & Eastern has committed to matching the grant amount.
The grant application is due Oct. 1, but Kippley said grant recipients won’t be notified on the success of their application for six to nine months.
If Ellis & Eastern’s grant application isn’t successful, the railroad has a couple of other grant opportunities through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Kippley anticipates it will apply to all three grant opportunities within the next five years, and said an estimated $56 million is needed to repair the rail line between Manley and Worthington.
“If we were successful in winning the grant, it will speed up the process for making a safe and reliable rail,” Kippley said. “Otherwise we’ll be the little engine that can — we’ll keep chugging along.”