Fan-favorite Minnesota short line faces loss of business

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St. Croix Valley SD40-2 No. 1326, wearing an NP logo for the day, heads south near Pine City, Minn. on Oct. 8, 2019.
Steve Glischinski
RUSH CITY, Minn. – The St. Croix Valley Railroad, famous for its diesels painted in the style of the Northern Pacific Railway, is facing the loss of one of its major customers. The railroad operates the last significant portion of the former NP main line from the Twin Cities to the Twin Ports, 36 miles from Hinckley to North Branch known by the NP as the “Skally Line.” It serves a flour mill in Rush City and a sand plant in North Branch.

Earlier this year Ardent Mills LLC announced that it would permanently close its flour mill in Rush City in February 2020. The facility will then be torn down to assure no competitor purchases it. The Rush City mill principally grinds spring wheat and durum, the latter is used is used to make pasta. The railroad brings in about 1,200 to 1,800 carloads of wheat each year to the Rush City mill and hauls out flour, much of it destined for Kraft Foods for its pastas. But come February 2020, that traffic will disappear.

The Rush City mill has a long history. It was the first mill acquired by Farmers’ Union Grain Terminal Association, a predecessor cooperative to CHS Inc. The mill was built in 1910 and converted to a durum mill in 1926.

That still leaves the railroad with its biggest customer: the Titan Lansing sand plant in North Branch. The railroad receives empties from BNSF Railway at Hinckley and takes loaded sand trains back for interchange. The plant opened in 2013 with sand trucked from Grantsburg, Wis. With the current downturn in the frac sand business, carloads from the plant have slowed to a trickle. While there have been persistent rumors about the plant closing permanently, the company has not announced any plans to do so and the railroad has not received any information about a permanent closure.

With sand traffic greatly reduced, the only remaining customers after Ardent Mills closes would be Interstate Energy Partner’s propane facility in Rush City and Zinpro Corp. at North Branch, which produces animal nutrition products and receives about 100 cars of chemicals a year. Whether the railroad could hang on with that traffic and minimal sand shipments until it can land more business is an open question.

St. Croix Valley currently has three locomotives painted in a quasi-Northern Pacific scheme: GP9 1363 and two SD40-2s rebuilt from SD45s but retaining their original carbodies, Nos. 1325-1326. Another NP-painted locomotive, GP8 No. 1352 has mechanical issues and is off the property.

NP’s “Skally” line was downgraded following the BN merger, with most traffic moving on the former Great Northern between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports. BN began abandoning portions of the line in mid-1970s north of Hinckley; the route south of North Branch was cut in 1989. St. Croix Valley began operations in 1997 under the aegis of RailAmerica; in 2000 it was sold to KBN Inc., which also owns short lines Dakota Northern and Minnesota Northern.
St. Croix Valley No. 1326 switches the Ardent Mills flour mill in Rush City, Minn., on Oct. 7, 2019. The mill will close permanently in February 2020.
Steve Glischinski

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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