Trains continue to chug through downtown Sioux Falls

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Despite moving the railroad switching yard out of the downtown of Sioux Falls, trains will still stop traffic.

“What you see downtown is realistically the same number of (train) cars as before the project,” said Joshua Peterson. Peterson is an engineer with the city and was heavily involved in the project to remove the downtown railyard and add rail lines along Rice Street to replace the bulk of the yard.

What has changed since the project was completed in 2018, is there are fewer instances of trains backing up and moving forward on tracks in the downtown area, Peterson said.

The former downtown switching yard was small compared to today’s standards. It required train operators to move on the tracks multiple times in order to hook up or unhook train cars. So, trains would back down the track, then move forward multiples times in this sequence before heading out of the downtown, Peterson said.

A lot of that back and forth movement was impacting traffic on 6th and 8th streets, he said.

“The back and forth has decreased,” Peterson said.

Peterson said there are days when the public gets frustrated waiting for a train.

“It tends to pop up every time a train comes through during rush hour,” Peterson said. “People will say ‘Hey I thought we got rid of all these trains.'”

A railroad crossing at 8th Street in Sioux Falls.

The city used roughly $40 million in federal transportation money to develop a rail area near Rice Street to help ensure that rail service would continue.

According to the “Finding of No Significant Impact” study of 2013 “these improvements must allow BNSF to continue to switch regional trains and engines, allow BNSF and the E&E to interchange rail cars, provide a connection between the three subdivisions, and maintain local service to businesses throughout Sioux Falls…”

BNSF is Burlington Northern Santa Fe and E&E is Ellis and Eastern.

This was a mutli-year, mutli-phase project that not only moved the rail switchyard as well as set the stage for development in and along the old switchyard.

Short trains, longer trains

Peterson said shorter trains, fewer than 50 cars, continue to pass through the downtown but so do longer trains.

The trains travel into Sioux Falls from the north in a Y pattern with one branch from the city of Madison and the other branch from Rice Street or the town of Corson, Peterson said. The branches join as one into the downtown.

The city had tried to find alternatives to the Y pattern but couldn’t find a direct connection between the two branches of the Y.

This 2013 railroad map from the city of Sioux Falls shows the Y configuration north of the city’s downtown. With the line from Madison as one branch of the Y and the lines from the Corson area and Ellis and Eastern at the other branch of the Y. They merge in the downtown.

Longer trains with 50 cars or more will still need to travel through the downtown, Peterson said.

In BNSF’s evaluation of the project before it was started, it said “The number of regional unit trains entering/leaving Sioux Falls would not change as a result of this project. Approximately four unit trains per week would continue into town but would no longer stop downtown,” the July 2013 Environmental Assessment and evaluation said.

Yet, the average number of trains that pass through downtown Sioux Falls would not reach double digits per day now and were counted in terms of trains per week, even when the rail switching yard was in the downtown.

Who uses the rail lines?

BNSF trains, D & I railroad and E & E all travel through Sioux Falls including in the downtown, Peterson said.

“…our traffic fluctuates depending on the needs of the consumer,” said Lena Kent, an executive director of public affairs for BNSF.

“Through Sioux Falls we carry freight of all kinds including agriculture products,” Kent said.

Trains that may travel from the Canton area could be carrying concrete products while others may carry ethanol.

The BNSF depot near 8th Street.

On Nov. 30, 2012, BNSF said in a report to the city at the time regional service in the city peaked at about 10 unit trains per week they arrived and departed in the downtown yard. Those trains would have been about 50 cars each with two engines. That is not all the trains that would have traveled through the downtown but those are some that would have used the railyard for pick up and delivery.

In 2015, 17.1 million tons of freight was moved by rail in South Dakota, according to the state’s 2017 freight plan. That was projected to increase to 25.2 million tons by 2045.

Why can’t trains avoid rush hours?

Drivers can get frustrated when a train crosses in the downtown between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and just after 5 p.m., Peterson said.

But the “Railroad schedule depends on customer needs,” Peterson said. “They can’t necessarily avoid rush hours.”

One of rail crossing arms in the city.

“In terms of train schedule, freight trains do not operate on a set schedule and again are determined by the needs of our customers across our vast network,” Kent said.

How long can a train block traffic?

Laws governing trains blocking crossings vary by state.

South Dakota law says it can’t be more than 20 minutes if it’s in the path of an emergency vehicle on a trip.

Here’s the law: 49-16A-119. Trains prohibited from blocking streets, roads or highways during emergency– “A standing railroad engine or car may not occupy or block any street, road, or highway grade crossing for more than twenty consecutive minutes, if the path of any emergency vehicle making an emergency trip is blocked by the railroad engine or car, unless it is disabled, by accident or otherwise and cannot be moved without striking any object or person on track. A violation of this section by a railroad corporation is a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

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