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Flooding takes toll on railroads

PELTO, N.D. - Rodger Harmon got down on all fours, his knees grinding into freshly laid granite rock as he examined the steel rail along Pelto Slough.

Inspecting the rails
Rodger Harmon, rail inspector with Northern Plains Railroad, eyes a rail last month at Pelto Slough west of Whitman, N.D., where a crew is repairing a section of track damaged by high water. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

PELTO, N.D. - Rodger Harmon got down on all fours, his knees grinding into freshly laid granite rock as he examined the steel rail along Pelto Slough.

"We do sonic testing twice a year. It's expensive. So we still need to eyeball it," said the rail inspector for Northern Plains Railroad.

Flooding knocked this line - from NPR's headquarters in Fordville to Devils Lake - out of service for more than a month this spring.

Crews dumped thousands of tons of rock to raise a bridge over the water by 8 inches and the rail bed by 6 inches for a mile in this area, between Whitman and North Dakota Highway 1 north of Lakota.

"It's been an ongoing, expensive project," said Larry Jamieson, NPR vice president of operations.

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Jamieson estimates this year's flood damage at several hundred thousand dollars throughout NPR's 400 miles of track in northeastern North Dakota and northern Minnesota.

BNSF Railway officials estimate flood-related damage at more than $3 million this year in North Dakota, said Gus Melonas, media director for BNSF in Seattle.

"This year presented one of the most problematic years due to weather-related damage in our history of operating in North Dakota," he said.

Significant water damage to track and roadbeds occurred in the Jamestown, New Rockford, Fargo, Grand Forks, Mandan and Granville areas.

Minnesota Northern Railroad, a short line based in Crookston, also had significant losses from the flooding.

"We lost a bridge across the Pembina River at Walhalla. It's out of service," said General Manager George LaPray.

That trapped 30 rail cars on the north side of the bridge. He estimates it'll cost $400,000 to $500,000 to rebuild piers and make all of the necessary repairs in Walhalla.

MNR serves four major shippers on the other side of the lost bridge: Walhalla Bean Co., Walhalla Farmers Grain LLC, Johnson Farms and Simplot Grower Solutions.

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"We're hoping we're back in operation before freeze-up," he said. "We'd be surprised if we're back before Labor Day. We're out the revenue in the time being. It certainly impacts our bottom line in a significant way."

The damaged bridge prevents trains from getting to the plant, so crews are forced to load seed and processed product at an alternate site on the other side of the bridge.

Besides the Fordville-Devils Lake line, NPR officials said they've had flood-related damage in the Johnstown and Nekoma, N.D., and Oslo, Minn., areas.

"We have some very soft track," Jamieson said. "I've never seen conditions this soft."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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