ND rail update to improve efficiency, accessibility, safety

By The Bakken Magazine Staff | January 18, 2016

The last time North Dakota’s rail plan was updated was in 2007. Oil and gas development in western North Dakota has greatly increased rail traffic in the state since then, but agriculture-based commodity movement has also increased. The amounts of agricultural commodities and oil shipped within the state have risen sharply during the past eight years, said Ben Ehreth, of the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

The new rail plan will comply with the requirements of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which was enacted in 2008, Ehreth said.

The NDDOT is leading a team of six state agencies working to develop the new state rail plan. The goal of the state agencies is to draft a plan that will provide efficient, accessible service to rail customers and improve rail safety.

The new rail plan is expected to give guidance to the rail systems and services that North Dakota freight shippers and passengers use for at least the next 20 years. Besides the NDDOT the other North Dakota agencies working to develop the plan are: the Public Service Commission, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Emergency Services, the Pipeline Authority and the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.

The team developing the plan will look at several topics, including how the state rail network has changed over time, how the network meets the needs of its users , and how it impacts the residents, the state economy, freight and passenger reliability, safety and the environment.

The first major task of the team is to gather stakeholder and public input. That will include public meetings and interviews with individuals. A public internet survey also is being developed and is expected to be launched in the next several months.

The rail plan is being developed in three phases, beginning with establishing the current rail system’s baseline. Phase one work began in September 2015 and is expected to continue through early 2016. Phase Two will identify North Dakota rail needs and opportunities, and has a target completion date of May. Phase three, which will look at rail service and investment, is scheduled for completion by late fall.

The new rail plan under development may be the most important since the original was drafted in 1980, said Denver Tolliver, Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute director, noting that safe, cost-effective and reliable rail service is essential to North Dakota’s, energy, agricultural and manufacturing industries.