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Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
Illinois State Legislative Board

Oil train traffic down on BNSF lines in Minnesota, Wisconsin

Oil train traffic down on BNSF lines in Minnesota, Wisconsin

New documents show BNSF Railroad is hauling fewer crude oil trains through Minnesota and Wisconsin than it was last winter.

BNSF now averages 25 unit trains per week along its line that follows the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to Illinois, according to a report released Friday by the Wisconsin Department of Emergency Management.

That’s down from an average of 36 reported in September, a drop of about 25 percent.

A report filed with the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security shows somewhat smaller reductions on the BNSF east-west line through Minnesota. BNSF reported a slight uptick on its line through Southwest Minnesota.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said “volumes on routes can change for various reasons, including the market and maintenance activity occurring on the railroad.”

The reduction is likely a temporary response to falling oil prices and is happening across networks, according to Oil Change International, a clean energy advocacy group that tracks the petroleum industry.

Related: Charges brought in Lac-Megantic oil train disaster

“It seems like with the low oil price and reduction in drill rigs that has come from that there’s less oil to be transporting,” said David Turnbull, a spokesman for the nonprofit. “You can expect as the oil industry ramps up again — if they’re allowed to do so … you can expect rail to ramp back up as the industry does.”

Canadian Pacific runs an average of nine oil trains per week on its main line, which runs along the west bank of the Mississippi River before heading east through La Crosse County.

Federal rules now require railroads to report to state officials the average weekly number of trains carrying 1 million or more gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. States including Minnesota and Wisconsin have made those reports available under open records laws.

Rail safety advocates have rallied against BNSF’s plans to add a second track through La Crosse, claiming it will result in even more trains hauling the explosive cargo through the city and environmentally sensitive areas.

BNSF says the project, one of 14 such track expansion projects along the Mississippi River corridor, will ease bottlenecks and help it meet demand for other commodities, including grain and coal.

La Crosse County Supervisor Maureen Freedland and others have sued the Department of Natural Resources over its approval of BNSF’s permit to fill 7.28 acres of wetland in the La Crosse River marsh. A judge is expected to rule next month on a request to put work on hold while the case is being litigated.

But the petroleum industry says rail is critical to getting gasoline to the pumps in non oil-producing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“People don’t want to see infrastructure,” said Dan Gunderson, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute who was in La Crosse Friday to meet with community leaders. “If you don’t have supply and a refinery, you are dependent on that infrastructure working.”

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