About 60 trains a day use the rail line that runs the length of La Crosse’s east side.
Among the cargo they carry is oil from the booming Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana, bound for refineries to the east and south.
Oil drawn from the western shale reserves has helped fuel a surge in rail shipping, as trains prove more flexible than pipelines for getting the crude out of the remote Northern Plains. U.S. railroads were expected to haul 400,000 carloads of oil in 2013, almost 40 times the number seen in 2009.
But sending the mile-long strings of tankers cross-country over the tracks has proven dangerous as well, with four oil train explosions in North America in the past six months, one of which killed 47 people in Quebec.
Now BNSF Railway Co. wants to make it possible for more trains to use its line through La Crosse. And that has some residents and local leaders nervous.
The company in early December informed the state commissioner of railroads it plans to add a second, parallel track from its yard near Gillette Street in north La Crosse to just south of Farnam Street — roughly from Logan High School almost to Central High School.
Because the railroad already owns the land, if the project is approved, grading work could begin later this year, BNSF stated in its letter to the commissioner.
The project would eliminate the last segment of single track now on that line, helping create “fluidity” and making rail traffic move more efficiently, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said.
Trains no longer would stack up at each end of this bottleneck, waiting for others to pass through, McBeth said. Road crossings should clear more quickly, reducing the delay for motorists.
But in light of recent accidents, those living in the shadow of the bluffs question the wisdom of sending more trains deep into La Crosse, through heavily residential areas. They want details on the BNSF plans, which McBeth said still are being finalized.
“That’s something that really bothers me, keeps me up at night, how many people are living within close proximity to those tracks,” said Mayor Tim Kabat, whose home is just off 28th Street, which runs parallel with the BNSF line.
“It is kind of alarming, just what the higher volume of train traffic might mean,” said state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, who can see the tracks and passing trains from her home at 2806 Main St. “And we have no idea of what’s on those trains that come through every day.”
Life along the tracks
In the Bluffside Tavern at 2717 Main St., the rumble of the trains can be felt as well as heard. One usually comes by about every 20 minutes, though that can vary given the time of day and season, tavern owner Mike Gazeley said. His patrons that night seemed not to notice.
“The people who have property on the railroad tracks are used to it,” Gazeley said.
A railroad buff, Gazeley considers BNSF a good neighbor and rail shipping to be as safe as any other mode of transport. An industry group claims 99.997 percent of hazardous material shipments reach their destinations safely.
He understands BNSF’s need to keep the trains moving, reasoning that trains sitting idle pose more of a risk.
But Gazeley acknowledges that, as with airline crashes, when something goes wrong with an oil train, it goes wrong big. Experts have warned that oil from the Bakken shale fields is lighter and more volatile than more familiar forms of crude.
Gazeley and his business could be on the front lines if an accident happens here, be it an oil train or some of the other chemicals he knows get shipped by rail as well.
“It always crosses your mind,” he admitted, noting a number of the 47 people who died in the July oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, were in a pub alongside the tracks.
La Crosse County hasn’t dealt with a significant train derailment since record rains and flash flooding in August 2007 undercut BNSF’s tracks south of Goose Island, forcing campers and nearby homeowners from the area, said Keith Butler, county emergency management coordinator.
When a BNSF oil train went up in a fireball Dec. 30 about 25 miles west of Fargo, N.D., almost all 2,400 residents of the nearby town of Casselton were advised to flee until the massive blaze burned itself out.
With an estimated 25,170 people and 11,596 households living within a half-mile of BNSF’s line through eastern La Crosse County, any evacuation here would be far more extensive, Butler said.
Emergency personnel regularly drill with BNSF on how to handle a derailments and spills. But he had not heard about BNSF’s plans to expand the line.
Looking for answers
The lack of information about BNSF’s plans has frustrated Karen Ringstrom and Maureen Freedland, who also live near the BNSF track.
They’ve drawn up a list of neighborhood concerns for BNSF, topped by the fear that increased traffic on the expanded line could raise the risk of an accident and reports that much of the oil and other flammable liquids are being shipped in outdated tank cars more prone to puncture in an accident.
“What other dangerous chemicals are in those cars going past our homes?” they asked.
In November, the Association of American Railroads renewed its call to retrofit or phase out about 78,000 of the estimated 92,000 tank cars now being used to transport flammable liquids.
But the AAR also pointed out that rail customers, not the railroad, own or lease most of the cars. The shippers, in turn, say it’s the railroads that need to upgrade tracks to better avoid derailments.
BNSF in 2013 invested $4.3 billion in maintenance and upgrades on its tracks and equipment nationwide, McBeth said.
“Overall, the rail industry has made significant progress in reducing accidents ... but certainly more needs to be done, because we believe one accident is one too many,” she said.
The answers La Crosse wants on the BNSF project should be coming soon, McBeth said. She expects BNSF will arrange a meeting on the project with local officials by the end of this month.
“We need to make sure we have all of the information first,” she said.
And the public will get a chance to air its concerns about the new BNSF line.
The railroad commissioner’s office and the state Department of Natural Resources both will require hearings in La Crosse before the project can be approved.
The DNR also will need to do environmental and wetland assessments and other reviews for the La Crosse River Marsh segment. Mitigation likely will be required for any fill in the marsh, although that’s expected to be minimal because the new track would run alongside the existing line, said Carrie Olson, water management specialist in the DNR’s La Crosse office.
“They need to prove to us there’s a need,” Olson said. That process won’t start until BNSF applies for permits, which hadn’t been done as of Friday, she said.
But it’s unclear whether anything can actually derail the project if BNSF meets all of its requirements, no matter what the local misgivings might be. The company already owns the land it plans to use for the additional line.
With little local power in the matter, Kabat hopes state and federal officials will increase their oversight to better ensure the oil coming on rail through La Crosse is being transported as safely as possible.
“We really need to have the federal government, state government stepping up with some leadership here,” Kabat said.