Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2010 REGIONAL OF THE YEAR: Northern Plains Railroad seeks diversity, takes on adversity

Written by  Roy Blanchard, Contributing Editor

Whether it’s wheat or wind energy components, the 2010 Regional Railroad of the Year seeks an ever-growing customer base, come heck or (literal) high water.

Perhaps more than some portions of the U.S., prairie residents must know their environment. Fordville, N.D.-based Northern Plains Railroad, Inc. must operate whether the climate is friend or foe. It benefits from Mother Nature’s blessings of wheat and wind and (most times) water.

Sometimes water becomes the railroad’s foe. Flood waters have interfered with operations this year as they did last year, with results in 2010 (at press time) still uncertain. “We’re within inches of our record flooding, with 4½ miles of track under water,” NPR Vice President Larry Jamieson said last month. “Hopefully the ballast and rip-rap work we’ve done will make a difference.”

But Mother Nature also blesses the Railway Age 2010 Regional Railroad of the Year with soil and water ideal for agricultural blessings, notably wheat—and with winds offering alternative energy options to a region (and nation) hungry to tap same. Here, Northern Plains Railroad already has made a difference.

Working with interchange partner Canadian Pacific, and also with Union Pacific as a business partner, NPR helped establish a wind component handling facility in Devils Lake, N.D., as part of the nation’s growing wind-energy industry (see map). NPR officials note the effort was the second (though larger) wind project the railroad participated in., and point out that business partner “CP allowed us to take the lead on this project.”

“Large” also defined the components, and challenges of moving those components, over rail right-of-way, including railroad bridge infrastructure nearly 100 years in age with “inches of clearance,” according to Jamieson and Jesse Chalich, assistant vice president, marketing and sales. But the potential payback is also equally big: “We see a significant opportunity to serve the state and surrounding communities with dependable rail transportation service and an exceptional wind facility for future wind projects,” Chalich says.

NPR began operations in January 1997 on what was called the “Wheat Lines.” Today the system stretches roughly 348 miles: 291 miles of right-of-way leased from Canadian Pacific, and 56 miles acquired outright by NPR from BNSF. NPR began with 12 employees and now includes 60, “full time for the most part,” Jamieson says.

Aided by “low-interest loans from North Dakota for improvements to our infrastructure,” the railroad sports upgrade ties, rail, and “a lot of signal improvements.”

NPR, perhaps predictably, still “is predominantly agriculturally based,” Chalich says, The regional railroad helps handle annual crop movements in large swaths of North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota. “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen higher than average yields for the farmers. We look at opportunities to ‘grab’ grain from these areas every year., and to increase market share by getting product into our own elevators.” By so doing, NPR offers reloading flexibility to its customers, and “we’re eliminating the truck cost on it by so doing,” he says.

But NPR’s expansion beyond agricultural traffic includes not just alternative energy, but more traditional energy moves, as well. On Jan 1 the company began operating the industrial switching operation for Murphy Oil USA, Inc., located in Superior Wis. NPR crews place empty tank cars to be loaded with high-sulfur diesel fuel, then set the cars out for BNSF to handle. The business establishes NPR’s identity in a third upper-Midwest state and, says Chalich, “is the only industrial switching service located in the Duluth, Minn./Superior, Wis., area.”

NPR appreciates the cooperation it gets interchange partners BNSF and CP, as well as from Union Pacific. The “everyday communications with our Class I partners significantly improves the service we provide to our current (and new) customers,” Chalich says.

The regional railroad is focusing on maximizing its own energy use. Assistant Operations Manager/Rules and Safety Officer Paul Osowski says NPR has equipped eight of its 22 locomotives with Kim Hotstart systems; it also “upgraded our fueling station to facilitate tracking fuel consumption on each locomotive. These upgrades show our commitment to reducing fuel useage, which in turn has helped cut costs and pollution.”

Cutting costs mattered more than usual during 2009, as flood damage repair cost the railroad $860,000—“a staggering figure” for NPR to overcome, Osowski says. NPR saw five miles of track submerged at one location, disrupting service for 26 days. Then at a second location it moved to “raise a bridege platform and over one mile of track a total of eight inches to stay just ahead of rising water.” Despite the setback, “we moved a near-record number of carloads and our car repair department set record totals,” Osowski says. NPR markets its shop & mobile repair service as an additional way to generate revenue.

Jamieson says NPR is always on the lookout for additional mileage through acquisitions, if such becomes possible, but sees plenty of potential within its current sphere of operations. Adds Chalich, “2010 will be a year for the NPR record books in several ways. Our business volumes continue at a record pace, and we expect even more growth and new opportunities.”