It would be hard to miss this railroad project. Wooden ties have been laid out along the tracks from Glasgow to Wolf Point for weeks. Odd yellow machines are clustered on sidings. Motels in Glasgow are full of railroad people and derailment specialists have filled camping spaces with company RVs.
Roadmaster Damon Fry out of Williston is in charge of this big maintenance project. He said the Glasgow to Wolf Point segment started June 9 and is scheduled to finish on July 14. Some 65,000 ties will be changed on this 50-mile stretch. Then the work will move on east between Williston and Minot, where another 100,000 ties will be replaced.
Two tie gangs of 40 to 50 people each are at work, helped by servicing gangs of four people and the local sections of maintenance people.
The trick is to schedule windows of time between trains when all these people can work. The Hi-Line is a Class 5 railway, the high-sped freeway of tracks, able to carry Amtrak at 80 mph and freight at 70 mph.
Traffic is on the increase, with more oil trains as production skyrockets in the Bakken but pipeline capacity doesn’t.
According to a BNSF newsletter, the company has boosted its oil hauling capacity to 1 million barrels a day to keep up. The volume has increased nearly 7,000 percent in five years.
“It’s a rolling pipeline,” a company official said.
The heavy traffic takes a toll on the tracks, and so does the weather, especially quadruple the normal rainfall this year.
“What it does to the track structure is unbelievable,” Fry said.
Fry negotiates with headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, for time at night when he can have several hours for the tie gangs to work with their machines that pull spikes, kick old ties out and push new ones in. He can get four to six hours if he can convince the coordinators that the work has priority enough.
While they have the chance, other crews “shadow” the tie gangs, doing all the ordinary maintenance work they can in these precious windows. A special crew brought switch panels from Glasgow last week for the planned Whatley staging area, two extra tracks where trains can be parked. Holding trains relieves congestion, allows for separation of trains and creates smoother flow.
A 60-ton crane lifted the segments of pre-assembled track on ties out of an open rail car, setting them beside the rail line. Construction on the staging area is still in the future, but time to bring the switches is available right now.
Trains are the most cost-effective method of moving loads, Fry said. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline might have an impact on the movement of oil, but he doesn’t expect to see a big reduction in train traffic.