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Freight Rail Shipments Up Across Wisconsin

Have you noticed longer and more frequent delays at railroad crossings in Milwaukee and throughout the state?Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale says there is more rail traffic in the state these days. There are a couple of reasons for the change – carriers are recovering from winter’s extreme conditions and there are more products crossing the state.

“I can tell you that the trains are longer, heavier and they are more frequent," Plale says.

There are parts of the rail line in Wisconsin that have been virtually dead for decades - up around Camp Douglas hadn’t seen a train in about 40 years. Plale says that Union Pacific spent about $18 million to rehab it.

"When you see a lot of trains moving, it can be frustrating when you’re the one stuck on the other side of the gate, but it’s a good harbinger that the economy is getting better," Plale says. "I was in Weyewega the other day and I got stuck by a northbound Canadian National train and it was just car after car after car after car of lumber. That was something you just wouldn’t see two years ago because nobody was building."

He says special sand mined in western Wisconsin that is shipped to hydraulic fracturing sites in the west and south, and oil from the west that travels through Milwaukee to Chicago account for much of the new freight hauled by more than half of the major railroads in the country.

A long line of tank cars comprise a westbound freight train traveling through a residential neighborhood in the Milwaukee area.

“Here in Milwaukee, we have two Union Pacific lines that connect Milwaukee to Chicago, a Canadian Pacific mainline that connects Milwaukee and Chicago, that also carries the Amtrak. Burlington Northern Santa Fe hugs the west side of the state," Plale says. "We move an awful lot of stuff. We’ve got the port of Milwaukee that brings in goods, we have three big power plants in southeast Wisconsin that rely on coal. So you’ll see an awful lot of coal trains moving through this area.  During harvest time you’ll see a lot of grain."

The state’s railroad commissioner insists rail is a safe way to ship freight and that the system is not near to reaching maximum capacity.

“Part of it isn’t so much a physical capacity, it’s crew capacity," Plale says. "The way the federal law works is if you are a conductor on a train, after 12 hours you have to stop that train and they you have to have 18 hours of mandatory rest period. Then they have to bring another crew in. It’s kind of like a kink in the hose then because you’ve got this train stopped, and then you’ve got the train behind it, and they’re just sitting there because there is a shortage of crew."

According to Plale, rail conductors and engineers are being "hired like crazy" to keep up with demand.

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