As rail moves frac sand across the Wisconsin landscape, new conflicts emerge
July 14, 2014 5:30 am • TAYLOR CHASE | Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Wisconsin’s boom in production of sand used for hydraulic fracturing has fueled a large increase in rail traffic moving the commodity to other states, causing conflicts and raising safety concerns.
While the number of Wisconsin car-train accidents has remained relatively steady in recent years and derailments actually are down, some residents who live near train tracks used for transporting sand — primarily in western and northwestern communities — complain about noise and traffic delays in addition to safety worries.
Chippewa Falls resident Patricia Popple, an activist opposed to frac sand mining, recalls that train traffic in the area was once much less frequent, and that the trains were shorter.
Now, she said, "They go through here any hour of the night and day … and have to sound whistles every time they go through an intersection."
Jeff Plale, the state’s railroad commissioner, confirms that more trains really are chugging through Wisconsin. He said there is "no question" that a 63 percent increase in state freight rail revenue between 2002 and 2012 was caused in part by the rapid growth in frac sand mining in western and northwestern Wisconsin.
Rail transportation of frac sand is fueling another increase in train traffic in Wisconsin. Last week, The Associated Press and the La Crosse Tribune, citing newly released figures, reported that three dozens trains loaded with flammable crude oil extracted by fracking now rumble through the state every week.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism examined concerns surrounding rail transportation of frac sand in Wisconsin and found:
● Railroad tracks that had not been used in decades now are being used daily by freight trains.
● Although the rapid growth in rail traffic means the likelihood of accidents has increased, there has been no jump in highway-rail collisions in the past 10 years.
● Overcrowded rail lines have led to delayed trains and stalling on roadways.
● Noise from train whistles now disturbs what were once quiet communities in western and northwestern Wisconsin.
● The increase in train traffic has brought wholesale improvements to the state’s rail infrastructure, paid for with tens of millions of public and private dollars.
Wisconsin is the nation’s No. 1 producer of frac sand, with an estimated output of about 26 million tons annually, more than double what it was in 2012. The sand mined in Wisconsin is injected into oil and natural gas wells in the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
As of this May, there are 125 permitted or operational mines, processing plants and rail loading facilities in Wisconsin, according to a tally by the Center. Sixteen more are proposed. Many have clustered near rail lines.
Yet while residents like Popple view the increase in traffic as worrisome, those within the frac sand industry are reveling in good times.
Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, argues that more rail means a better Wisconsin.
"Overall, the economy looks like it’s improving," Budinger said in a phone interview as he described watching trains full of sand, oil and agricultural products go by in Menomonie, a Dunn County community.
Train accidents fluctuate
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, over the past 10 years, the annual number of highway-rail crashes in Wisconsin has varied widely, from a high of 84 in 2005 to a low of 33 in 2010.
Plale said the number of accidents tends to fluctuate each year, similar to those involving cars and trucks. At the same time, the number of train derailments in Wisconsin also has varied, ranging from 35 in 2008 to 15 last year, with steady decreases since 2011.
Wisconsin has seen some fatal rail accidents in recent years, a number that also has fluctuated from four in 2009 to 11 in 2011. So far in 2014, there have been five train-related deaths.
In February, a 41-year-old man was killed by a train in Chippewa Falls. Police say it appears that the man, Donald Dreke, was trying to get past a stalled frac sand train when it began moving. The train had been at a standstill for several hours while waiting for a new engine.
In police interviews, a friend described Dreke as a "nice guy that would help out a friend whenever needed." Relatives expressed shock and confusion upon hearing the news. An autopsy revealed high levels of alcohol in Dreke’s system, but the medical examiner concluded the cold temperatures made the results unreliable. The Union Pacific engineers were not cited.
Fatal train-related accidents are uncommon, but they serve as a reminder that as thousands of train cars haul frac sand from western and northwestern Wisconsin, the chances of dangerous encounters with freight trains are increasing.
Frac sand fuels freight boom
There has been a substantial increase in freight rail due in part to the rapidly growing amount of frac sand moving out of state to hydraulic fracturing sites in North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
"Volume has increased dramatically, and the rail industry has just blossomed," Plale said.
Plale estimates that Progressive Rail, a short line which runs from Chippewa Falls north to Cameron, has increased from one train a week to two or three a day — which would be about 15 to 20 times more traffic. A representative from the rail line declined to provide exact numbers but did confirm the growth was due in part to frac sand. The larger Union Pacific railroad has reported that transporting frac sand in Wisconsin has helped it offset a 14 percent decrease in coal shipments.
And Canadian National saw even more benefits from the frac sand industry. The company reported that it earned $200 million in revenue in 2013 by hauling more than 55,000 carloads of the commodity.
Professional Logistics Group Inc., a consultant company based in Chicago, found in 2012 that transportation is 58 percent of the cost of frac sand. It is no wonder, then, that companies have begun investing in cheaper modes of moving their goods. And frac sand industry executives say rail is the best mode of transportation available.
"Rail is four times more fuel-efficient than a highway truck," said Dave Fellon, president of Progressive Rail. "You can move a ton of freight over 425 miles on just one gallon of fuel. That’s an amazing statistic."
Using more trains not only benefits frac sand companies, it also indirectly benefits some communities, according to local officials.
Bruce Stelzner, Chippewa County highway commissioner, said that in the past, businesses in Chippewa County had "significant issues with moving their goods by rail." But because of the frac sand boom, railways are making investments in the county, updating infrastructure and increasing the number of rail cars available.
"Area businesses that are dependent on rail transportation are growing, providing jobs and economic benefits to the community," Stelzner said.
Budinger, who also works as a regional manager for Fairmount Minerals in Chippewa County, agrees that the relationship between frac sand and rail is mutually beneficial. Mining companies are building spurs to reach main rail lines to lower transportation costs, he said, which in part determines the final cost of oil and natural gas.
Rail boost draws opposition
But not everyone is happy about the blossoming relationship between the frac sand industry and railroad companies. Since the increase in rail traffic, residents have expressed concerns regarding noise, safety and traffic disruption.
"Some people can live with the noise, other people cannot," said Popple, who lives a block and a half from a Canadian National track. "Their health is affected because they need continuous sleep. Maybe that’s why I feel so tired all the time … you hear these whistles all the way through the city towards Eau Claire at all hours of the night and day."
Chippewa County resident Wayne Schindler lives near the EOG Resources Inc. mine in the town of Howard. He said in the beginning he was "not four-square opposed" to frac sand mining, but since the increase in rail traffic he worries about whether existing tracks can handle the heavier loads.
"One of these (derailments) could happen at a road crossing and cause serious damage," Schindler said.
Plale, the railroad commissioner, said there’s always a risk of harm when people, vehicles and trains interact. In addition, the large increase in freight rail is putting train cars where residents are no longer accustomed to seeing them.
"Now trains are on lines that hadn’t seen a train in 25 years or more," Plale said.
Fellon said while safety and noise concerns are understandable, residents need to have more information as to why things work the way they do. By law, for example, most trains must sound their horns upon coming to an intersection. And while getting rid of the horns may alleviate noise concerns, it would increase safety hazards, he said.
"We’re running at high speeds and we’re doing it the right way," Fellon said.
Officials in frac-sand country and rail officials say they are listening to residents’ concerns. In Chippewa County, for instance, a local traffic safety commission meets quarterly to discuss safety issues.
The state also has programs to improve rail safety and capacity. The Freight Railroad Preservation Program offers grants to railroads that qualify to update and expand infrastructure. The 2013-15 state budget sets aside $52 million toward the program.
In many cases, individual rail companies also have boosted investment in rail infrastructure to meet customer demand. Fellon said Progressive Rail, for example, has updated its line with new cross ties, heavier rail and upgraded bridges. Larger railways have also been upgrading; in 2012 Canadian National spent $35 million to rebuild 40 miles of track west of Ladysmith.
"The one thing that’s nice about frac sand is that the volume has justified a lot of upgrades," Fellon said. "It’s really nice to see that influx of business. And it’s been a huge win for northwest Wisconsin."
One of the largest concerns among residents, however, remains train-caused traffic jams.
Horror stories describe trains stuck for hours before moving off major roadways. Before Dreke was struck and killed, the train had been stuck for over five hours. Plale also recalls a train that broke down near Sheldon in Rusk County and was stuck for 27 hours in March, forcing at least one ambulance to take a different route.
"Blocked crossings happen because we’re just at capacity with moving trains through the state," Plale said.
Wisconsin law says railroads can be fined if trains obstruct a roadway for longer than 10 minutes. But the law is difficult to enforce in the small towns where train traffic has become prevalent and resources are scarce.
According to Popple, trains in Chippewa Falls are regularly stalled over intersections, and signals sometimes malfunction, but she claims little is done to alleviate the problems right away.
"I have personally seen one Sunday the flashing lights are on with the bells at a crossing and everyone was crossing the railroad and I stopped and watched for a half hour before a police car came and never stopped to see if there was anything wrong with the signal," Popple said. "I bet it went on for a couple of hours."
Stelzner, the Chippewa County highway commissioner, said enforcement of the law is being stepped up in Chippewa Falls, where complaints about stalled trains have been growing.
Backed up rail lines are affecting other industries, too. Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger line, which runs through six Wisconsin stations, has experienced delays lasting several hours due to sharing lines with major freight trains including BNSF and Canadian Pacific. While Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari could not say if the backups were directly related to frac sand, he did say it was due to an overall increase in volume.
Trains part of state’s ‘fabric’
Fellon, of Progressive Rail, is confident that the increase in train traffic has done more good than harm.
"There’s always concerns about change," Fellon said. But railroads are the reason many of these communities formed, he argues. "Railroads are the fabric of northwestern Wisconsin."
And there’s more to come: The Wisconsin Department of Transportation estimates that between 2007 and 2030, overall rail freight tonnage in Wisconsin will grow by about 16 percent.
Steps are being taken to reduce the impact. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education has found that unit trains, which are chains of cars all with the same product going to one place, are becoming more popular, increasing efficiency and reducing the number of stops trains have to make. The traditional manifest train, in contrast, has different types of cars with different products, forcing the train to stop at multiple loading locations.
Regardless of how the relationship between freight rail and frac sand evolves, residents should get used to them being around.
"The state was built on railroads. We have railroads older than the state here," Plale said. "It’s not like trains are a totally new thing to Wisconsin, it’s just a matter of peaceful coexistence. They’re not going anywhere."
Former Center intern Alison Dirr contributed to this story. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.