After a rocky patch a few years ago, the rail industry appears to be back on track in the state, especially in Chippewa County.
“It has been a huge boom,” said Jeff Plale, the state’s railroad commissioner. “Anyone who says it’s an antiquated industry has been living under a rock.”
Plale was among dozens of business leaders and government officials in Chippewa Falls on Friday as Progressive Rail drove a “golden spike” to celebrate the installation of two passing tracks along the railroad north of the city.
The $5 million investment is a sure sign of the importance rail transport has been given in the area.
“We’ll have three times the capacity,” said Dave Fellon, owner of Progressive Rail, a Minnesota company. “This allows us to do more ... to grow our franchise.”
Fellon said the funding for the improvements came entirely from private funding.
“We’re not reaching out for public money,” he added.
Frank Huntington, who works in the freight and harbor division of the state Department of Transportation, praised the addition of the passing tracks. As the department had received calls about back ups and blocked vehicle traffic at intersections, he anticipates the passing tracks will streamline the traffic.
Huntington said the rail industry took a hit during the recession in 2008, but the industry has bounced back much quicker than expected.
“Rail companies feel good about the future,” he said.
The rail line maintained by Progressive runs between Chippewa and Barron counties, and is used by many area industries, including frac sand companies EOG Resources, Inc. and Superior Silica Sands.
Charlie Walker, head of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation, said frac sand has helped give the rail industry a boost in the area.
“Chippewa and Barron (counties) have worked aggressively to maintain business on that corridor,” he said. “Progressive has put that investment in for improvements ... and it’s a huge win for Chippewa businesses.”
Along with the intermodal station set up by Canadian National Railway, Walker anticipates the rail improvements will help attract more businesses to the area, especially the Lake Wissota Business Park.
With the increased traffic, their is also an increased need for rail safety.
Plale said there have been efforts by the national, nonprofit rail safety organization Operation Lifesaver to educate younger generations about rail safety. The state has also been examining intersections for potential safety improvements.
“My office investigates the accidents (along railroad tracks),” Plale said. “The worst part is that many are so preventable.”