Dakota Southern reopens service to grain shippers after seven years

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CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. - For the first time in seven years, revenue grain cars are moving across the state-owned former Milwaukee Road line between Mitchell and Kadoka, S.D. Alex Huff, President of the Dakota Southern Railroad, the line's operator, said a haulage agreement with BNSF Railway to other Class I railroads in the Sioux City, Iowa, area, has resulted in the line's reopening.

"We're sort of dipping our toe back into the grain business," Huff said.

This weekend, Dakota Southern spotted 22 empty grain cars to the elevator at Presho, S.D., for wheat loading, and will spot an additional 25. So far, the railroad is relying solely on Alco C420 213, so cars are moved in short cuts. However, Huff said SD7 No. 512 will be running soon, and that will allow him to move longer cuts.

In addition to the motive-power shortage, Dakota Southern has relied on a crew of only four people, as it's had only one customer since it pulled out of the grain business. Serving elevators has forced Huff to split employees between meeting the needs of its current customer - a box plant in Mitchell - and spotting the elevators.

As for the elevator operators, Huff said many had trouble believing the train would really come; that they'd believe it when the locomotive's headlight showed up in town. "The headlight has showed up, and we'll see what happens," he said. However, he said whether or not the railroad will run grain next harvest will depend on how shippers respond this year. At the very least, the railroad has a commitment for the required grain cars to do the job.

There have been other challenges, too. "We had to make some repairs to the track. Not steel issues or ties, particularly, it was almost entirely where the ground had settled on the approaches to bridges," said Huff. "It was kind of surprising to see how much settling had occurred on tracks that were unused."

Dakota Southern's line is currently open as far west as Vivian, S.D., where it has been paved over at a highway crossing. The state has committed to installing a grade crossing there - if the railroad has enough business to the west to justify it. In the past, the elevator to Murdo, S.D., has shipped by rail, and Huff said service there is a possibility, if customers respond well to the line's reopening. The end of the line is at Kadoka, but track conditions between Murdo and Kadoka are bad, and restoring service there is unlikely in the near future.

The state of South Dakota bought most of Milwaukee Road's trackage in the state in 1980. The purchase was funded by a controversial sales tax pushed by then-Gov. Bill Janklow and Transportation Secretary Jim Myers. Burlington Northern began operating most of the lines in the early 1980s, including the Mitchell-Chamberlain portion of the line Dakota Southern now operates. Dakota Southern began operations between Mitchell and Kadoka in the late 1980s, serving grain elevators. BN and successor BNSF are the only connection for the short line, and Huff said it was BNSF's grain rates that made shipping uneconomical on the line starting in the late 1990s. But in an agreement with the state, BNSF granted Dakota Southern a haulage-rights agreement to Sioux City in 2005, allowing interchange with CN and Union Pacific. - Andy Cummings
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