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Canadian Pacific looks to add third track on North Side

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Another major railroad is looking to expand its capacity in La Crosse as more crude oil and other freight moves along the rails.

Canadian Pacific has plans to add a third track along a ¾-mile stretch of its line between the Black River and its North Side rail yard, saying the new track would allow trains to pass more freely on its Chicago-Twin Cities corridor.

The railroad has requested permission from the state’s Commissioner of Railroads to modify two road crossings. The rail commissioner’s office has scheduled a public hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday.

If approved, it would be the city’s second major rail expansion this year.

BNSF is in the process of adding a second track along a four-mile stretch of its north-south line, a project that was met with resistance by those concerned about the environmental impact of increased crude oil traffic through city neighborhoods, parks and the La Crosse River marsh. A group of citizens have sued the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources over its issuance of a permit for work in the marsh and is asking a judge to temporarily halt work during the court proceedings.

According to CP’s petition, the modification would “increase network capacity.”

Spokesman Andy Cummings said the 4,500-foot rail addition will allow trains to pass even while crews are switching cars on the third track.

“The current alignment does not allow mainline operations to mainline operations to take place concurrently with some switching operations,” he said. “When this project is complete crews switching trains in the La Crosse yard will be able to do more work while mainline trains can pass without interference.”

Mayor Tim Kabat said the city’s primary concern will be keeping automobile traffic flowing.

“If there’s going to be train cars, rail cars, oil cars parked for an extended amount of time that would be a concern,” Kabat said.

Cummings said that would not be an issue.

“The planned work does not change the ways in which we use our rail corridor through La Crosse,” he said. “We’re planning this work so we can more efficiently conduct operations.”

City traffic engineer Matthew Gallager said he’s heard occasional complaints about trains blocking the Avon/Hager and Liberty/St. Cloud street intersections during switching but has no evidence that it is a problem.

The work will also require reconfiguration of medians the city installed in 2008 at a cost of about $17,500 in order to meet federal requirements for a no-whistle zone.

Canadian Pacific indicated in its petition that it will reimburse the city for any median or curb work necessary to maintain that quiet zone designation.

Big picture

The move comes as the nation’s Class 1 railroads compete for shares of growing freight volumes - including volatile crude oil from North Dakota, which has raised some concerns from rail safety advocates.

“We certainly are feeling a bit cautious about the whole thing,” said Ralph Knudson, spokesman for Citizens Acting for Rail Safety. “It’s going to mean - we assume - more big long oil trains sitting there … while another oil train passes by. Does that increase risk? Probably.”

U.S. freight rail volumes grew by 4 percent last year, according to the AAR, which points to a surge in shipment of intermodal containers, the boxes that carry most of our consumer products and which account for more than 47 percent of the industry’s cargo. Grain and sand accounted for the next biggest growth by volume.

But the volume of North Dakota oil moving by rail has skyrocketed more than 4,000 percent since 2008. Much of that oil moves down the Mississippi River corridor, according to reports that railroads file with state emergency officials. More than six trains a day, on average, roll through La Crosse - mostly on the BNSF line but increasingly on CP’s.

U.S. freight railroads are expected to spend a record $29 billion this year upgrading tracks and purchasing new locomotives and cars, according to the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.

Most of that work is to move more trains on the existing 140,000-mile network.

BNSF plans to invest $6 billion across its network; Canadian Pacific $1.5 billion.

Green light from Amtrak; no leverage for city

While not disclosing the project cost, Cummings said it is part of the railroad’s system-wide infrastructure investment. Cummings said construction has not been scheduled and a timeline will be set “based on the capacity needs of the rail corridor.”

Canadian Pacific is also upgrading its switchyard in La Crescent and adding passing sidings to its secondary line that continues south along the west bank of the Mississippi River.

Unlike BNSF, Canadian Pacific’s project will not require a wetland permit. And because it does not cross city land with murky ownership history, the city will not have the leverage to negotiate conditions like it did with BNSF.

Plans show the work will also move the mainline track back onto its original alignment, which is closer to the passenger platform at the Amtrak station.

“That’s a shorter walk for our passengers,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Overall, the project could improve service between Chicago and the Twin Cities, where Amtrak trains run on CP track.

“The more freight capacity there is, the faster passenger trains can operate,” Magliari said. “At least theoretically.”

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Related to this story

Increased freight shipments and a rosy economic outlook have triggered a construction boom as U.S. railroads scramble to upgrade their lines. But while major investments by BNSF and Canadian Pacific may benefit the region, environmentalists are concerned about the use of the Mississippi River valley as a freight corridor – especially for the volatile and toxic crude oil that accounts for a growing share of the volume.

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