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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: New railroad sidings opened in South Dakota

State's rail system improved on uly 8, 2016

South Dakota became the 40th state to join the Union in 1889. It ranks 16th in size among the 50 states, encompassing 77,123 square miles. It averages 10 people per square mile, and its total population is only about 900,000 people. (By comparison, the population density in Georgia is 149 people per square mile and 253 per square mile in California.)

Harvest time in South Dakota. (Photo: travelsouthdakota.com
Harvest time in South Dakota. (Photo: travelsouthdakota.com

South Dakota has a strong agricultural base, which remains the largest industry in the state. It routinely ranks among the top 10 states in the production of hay, sunflowers, rye, honey, soybeans, corn, wheat and cattle. The service sector, retail trade and manufacturing industries account for the majority of the state’s employment.

A couple of interesting facts about South Dakota that you may be unaware of – it has more miles of shoreline than Florida (because of its many lakes) and the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains is in South Dakota.

A map of South Dakota. (Image: mapgeeks.org)
A map of South Dakota. (Image: mapgeeks.org)

The importance of railroads to South Dakota 

As was true for many states and territories during the 1800s and 1900s, railroads were (and are) essential to move agricultural products from farming communities around South Dakota to market. 

Approximately 4,420 miles of railroad track were laid by several railroads serving the Dakota Territory and the state of South Dakota. However, the last track laid in the state occurred in 1948 – 74 years ago. Moreover, since 1909, rail abandonment resulted in the loss of service on over 75% of the system. 

Over 50% of the total loss of operating rail mileage was a result of the 1980 Milwaukee Road embargo. That led the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SD DOT) to analyze each rail line individually and to identify those rail lines that were vital to South Dakota’s economy. Some of the embargoed rail lines were acquired by other railroads and service was restored thereafter. However, the remaining essential lines for which a private buyer could not be found were purchased by the state of South Dakota.

A 1908 map shows the railroads operating in South Dakota at that time. (Image: eBay)
A 1908 map shows the railroads operating in South Dakota at that time. (Image: eBay)

Economics is the major reason for a state-owned railroad system in critical areas of South Dakota. As noted above, agriculture is South Dakota’s principal industry; and agricultural producers need an efficient bulk carrier system to transport crops to markets. It is more cost-effective to move farm commodities long distances by rail rather than by truck. With reliable rail service provided by private railroads and South Dakota-owned railroads, the commodities raised by agricultural producers have access to national and international markets at the lowest possible farm-to-market cost.

Therefore, rather than just sit by and bemoan what had happened to railroad service, the state of South Dakota – in cooperation with private railroads – has successfully restored service on over 900 miles of previously abandoned rail lines across the state. There are about 1,980 miles of operating rail lines in South Dakota at this time.

The plan for rail acquisition by the state was in three categories of rail lines: the core system; local option lines; and the main line. Each category was considered an essential part of South Dakota’s overall transportation system. In addition, rail lines were classified as operating or non-operating. 

An official map of railroads in South Dakota from U.S. Senator John Thune.
An official map of railroads in South Dakota from U.S. Senator John Thune.

There are four state-owned local option lines currently operating. The D & I Railroad operates on two local option lines between Canton and Elk Point (a total of 49.7 miles) and between Beresford and Hawarden, Iowa (16.9 miles). The Dakota Southern Railway operates 190 miles between Mitchell and Kadoka. The DMVW operates between Aberdeen and Geneseo Junction, North Dakota. Each of these rail lines is critically important to the communities they serve; they continue rail service in areas where Class I railroads were unprofitable.

In addition, there are two state-owned rail segments currently in non-operating status. The line between Napa Junction and Platte is 82.4 miles long; operations were restored intermittently between 1985 and 1989 but it has not been in operation since. The Kadoka to Rapid City line, which is 98.5 miles long, has not had rail operations restored since 1980. The line’s rail, ties, and bridges were salvaged beginning in 1996. The state has retained the right-of-way of the line for potential future railroad development.

The third category of state-owned rail line was the South Dakota Main Line, which ran 480 miles from Ortonville, Minnesota through Aberdeen to Terry, Montana. Ownership of the Main Line was transferred to the then-Burlington Northern in August 1991. That was followed by the sale of South Dakota’s core system (Aberdeen to Mitchell, Mitchell to Canton, Canton to Sioux Falls, and Mitchell to Sioux City) to Class I rail giant BNSF (the successor railroad to Burlington Northern) in November 2005.

July 8, 2016

Six years ago today, a ceremony took place in the town of Aurora, South Dakota, “to celebrate the completion of a major railroad project for trains traveling through the state’s eastern region.” At a cost of $5.65 million, 17,520 feet of main-line sidings in both Aurora and the city of Huron were built. 

For those readers unfamiliar with railroad terminology, “main-line sidings are auxiliary tracks that are built adjacent to a main track.” A siding’s endpoints are connected to the main track via switches that enable trains to be moved from one track to another. The purpose of sidings of this type is to allow trains traveling in opposite directions to pass each other, as well as to permit faster trains to make their way past slower ones headed in the same direction. Such sidings can help reduce delays along a rail line, as well as enabling more trains to use the rail line efficiently.

Construction of the main-line sidings in Aurora and Huron was a joint effort of the SD DOT and the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern Railroad (RCPE), which was established in 2014 and is a subsidiary of the railroad holding company Genesee & Wyoming, Inc. (Genesee & Wyoming was subsequently acquired by Brookfield Infrastructure in 2019; however, the RCPE still serves South Dakota.) The following is rarely heard or seen today – the project was completed $1.85 million under budget.

The route of the RCPE in South Dakota. (Image: Genesee & Wyoming, Inc.)
The route of the RCPE in South Dakota. (Image: Genesee & Wyoming, Inc.)

The ceremony

So six years ago today, at the ceremony in Aurora, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard “used the opportunity to highlight SD DOT’s collaboration with RCPE in the development of those main-line sidings.” In his remarks Daugaard said,  “I thank the RCPE and the South Dakota Department of Transportation for partnering together on this addition. Dependable rail service is particularly important to our state. Because South Dakotans consume only a modest share of the grain we produce, we rely almost entirely on railroads to deliver our grain to out-of-state markets.”

In addition, Bruce Lindholm, a program manager with the SD DOT, also underscored the importance of the new main-line sidings, as well as the important role of trains and tracks across South Dakota. During an interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Lindholm emphasized how railroads have been a key part of the state’s transportation system since the early 20th century. He stated, “The railroads really excel at moving large quantities of products long distances.”

A farm in South Dakota. (Photo: USDA)
A farm in South Dakota. (Photo: USDA)

FreightWaves Classics salutes South Dakota for its efforts to restore rail service to those areas of the state that needed it the most. Rather than just sit by and bemoan what had happened to rail service, South Dakota – in cooperation with private railroads – successfully restored service on over 900 miles of previously abandoned rail lines across the state. There are about 1,980 miles of operating rail lines in South Dakota at this time.

One Comment

  1. So glad we still have a railroad in South Dakota. I only wish they could bring back some transportation as well. The cost of driving or flying is increasing daily. If not for full blown commercial transportation then as a tourist enhancement! A lot of people would pay for a train ride across South Dakota in the summertime with a few stops along the way. Eventually they will be converting the Engines from diesel over electric to hydrogen fuel cell over electric to maintain the amount of power they need to haul heavy loads long distances. They are already doing it in Europe today. The USA is a little slow on any new technology, but change is coming. I hope South Dakota is thinking ahead!

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.