In October 2002, the first official load of corn was hauled down a newly rehabilitated rail line known as the Minnesota Prairie Line.
That event was marked with celebration, as it was the culmination of several years of efforts to get a rail line which had been abandoned back into operation.
This past Thursday morning on the 10-year anniversary of that first train heading east from Fairfax to Norwood-Young America on its way to Canada, another celebration was held, as those who have continued to work to make the rail line even better and are utilizing the mode of transportation gathered to commemorate the milestone.
“Today we have a great reason to celebrate,” said Mark Wegner, president of Minnesota Prairie Line, which is the rail line operator. “Ten years ago today we saw the first train go down the track.”
So much has changed over the past decade, said Wegner, as he outlined a number of the businesses which have expanded their operations because they have rail service.
He mentioned a cannery which at one time was at a crossroads – trying to determine whether or not to rebuild at its current location or to move to another site. Wegner said because rail service was offered to the business, it opted to remain at its location, and today, it is a vibrant business helping to improve the economy of the community where it operates.
Wegner said the rehab continues, as the line works to achieve modern day standards from one end to the other.
According to Bob Fox, chair of the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority, which owns the 94.5 mile line from Hanley Falls to Norwood-Young America, the goal is to have the entire rail line at the 115 pound standard. At that standard, trains are able to run at 25 miles per hour, and the cars can weigh the maximum of 286,000 pounds.
Fox said the line is currently at that standard from Winthrop east, which is about 34 miles of the line.
Wegner said the effort to improve the line are not going to end until the other 60 miles of track are done.
Work is being done on the track this year, as the 115-pound rail is installed getting the track rehabilitated through Winthrop, and Fox said that project should be done this fall.
One of the consistent supporters of the rail line at the legislative level has been Seventh Congressional District Rep. Collin Peterson who also addressed those in attendance at the 120th anniversary celebration.
“This project has not been the easiest,” said Peterson, who said from 2003-11 more than $8 million in federal funds have been dedicated to this project to allow it to continue improving.
The value of the line, said Peterson, is multi-faceted, as the use of rail is good for roads as it helps reduce the number of trucks on them, and it is good for the environment as it reduces the amount of exhaust.
Page 2 of 2 - He also said the rail has obvious economic value, as it offers a less expensive form of shipping.
Peterson said the decision at the federal level to eliminate earmarks was a bad decision, as local representatives certainly have a better idea of what projects best suit the area they represent than bureaucrats.
Those earmarks led to much of the funding for the rail rehab, and Peterson said if he is re-elected he is going to commit to finding ways to keep allocating dollars for this rail upgrade.
The ideal, said Wegner, is in another 10 years to be talking about a finished project and focusing on making the line a strong economic asset for the five counties and all of the communities and businesses which exist all along the line.