In 2002, the first train officially headed down the rail line owned by the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority (MVRRA). That line, which is owned collaboratively by five counties, including Redwood, Renville, Yellow Medicine, Sibley and Carver, is operated by Minnesota Prairie Line – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Twin City & Western Railroad.
Having established itself as a legitimate mode of transportation since that date, the owner and operator celebrated the successes of the line Sept. 22 at the community center in Franklin. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the regional line.
Those who were on hand to celebrate were also there to talk about the next 15 years and beyond.
“Today is a special Day as we celebrate the 15th anniversary of this regional rail line,” said Mark Wegner, Minnesota Prairie Line president. “It is incredible to see where this rail was 15 years ago compared to what is happening today.”
Wegner said while the vision of the rail line happened through MVRRA, the success happened because people invested in the line. That, he said, includes those at the state and federal level, who provided funds to rehabilitate the line, as well as the customers who have utilized the line to ship products.
“This is about you,” Wegner said to the crowd.
Collin Peterson, who represents the Seventh Congressional District of Minnesota, which includes much of the 94-mile line from Hanley Falls to Norwood-Young America, was in attendance for the celebration.
“I am proud of this line and what you have done here,” said Peterson.
Peterson said it is a pleasure for him to work with the people who represent the regional line, adding that is not always the case in Washington, D.C.
“This area is a lot different than it was in 2002,” said Peterson, adding the rail line has a lot to do with the economic improvements that are going on in the communities all along the line. “Without the support of the local communities, the cities and businesses along this line it wouldn’t happen.”
Peterson said it is the foresight and dedication of the people involved with the rail line over the past 15 years that continue to make it a viable option, adding he is here to help in any way to continue improving the line.
Peterson said this area has some of the best ag production in the world, adding while the products are grown here they ultimately end up in the hands of consumers someplace else.
“We have got to get that product to the processors and to the consumers out there, and the best way we can do that in this part of the world is rail,” said Peterson.
Bob Fox, Renville County commissioner and chair of the MVRRA board, said MVRRA has been a great partnership amongst the counties, adding that partnership has been enhanced by Minnesota Prairie Line. Millions of dollars of investment has been made by businesses along the line over the past 15 years, said Fox, adding that kind of long-term investment indicates how much people value rail as a transportation source.
The MVRRA board has received a $4 million allocation from the state legislature in its most recent bonding bill, said Julie Rath, MVRRA administrator, adding the plan is to use those dollars as a match for a requested federal grant of $20 million.
That, she added, would get the line to a heavier rail from Winthrop all the way west to Franklin if not farther. Peterson expressed his support for that federal allocation, adding he plans to work with the rest of the Minnesota delegation in Washington, D.C. to help secure those funds for the regional line.
The line is currently seeing upgrades of some of its bridges in that area, with funds allocated from the state helping to replace those bridges with box culverts.
The rail line offers a mode of transport to the world, as in 2016 products shipped on the line ended up in 40 different U.S. states, in Canada and Mexico as well as in other overseas markets.
In the past 15 years a total of 34 miles of rail line has been improved with heavier rail line and thousands of new rail ties, and the goal continues to be a complete rehabilitation of the line.
An improved line is good for the economy, said Rath, adding this year there have been 4,853 cars of products shipped along the line. In 2016, there were 6,614 cars shipped, said Rath, who said if the trend continues for the final months of this year the line should see an even better year.
“This line is an economic driver for the region,” said Rath. “What we need to do is market it to the metro area to get some of those businesses that are landlocked to move out here and use the rail to ship their products.”
That, she said, means job creation and a stronger economy for the whole region.
Rail transportation is efficient and effective, said Wegner, adding it is essential to rural America.