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  • BNSF's Columbus Branch

    Text and Photography by James E. Gilley

    Heavy with tank cars from a major corn processing plant, BNSF's Columbus (Nebraska) Local rolls through Staplehurst, Nebraska, in January 1997.
    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 54 RailNews - September 1997 - Page 55

    Bucking the Trend in Branch Lines

    For many now, Class I railroads have been aggressively selling off or abandoning branch lines to squeeze every last penny out of their operating budgets. Thus, it is unusual that Burlington Northern & Santa Fe spent nearly $8 million during the past two years to extend and upgrade a seldom-used branch line in eastern Nebraska.

    The reason for BNSF' outlay rests with one company-Minnesota Corn Processors.

    Minnesota Corn Processors began producing high fructose corn sweetener (HFCS)-a key ingredient in soft drinks-at its Columbus, Nebraska, plant in September 1992. This plant processes about 200,000 bushels of corn each day, and each 55-pound bushel yields 43.5 pounds of fructose (enough to sweeten 325 cans of soda pop). The remaining by-products are fermented and turned into ethanol, a popular fuel additive. Each year, the Columbus operation produces more than one million tons of HFCS and 80 million gallons of ethanol-which translates into 30 to 40 railcarloads per day. Minnesota Corn Processors generally receives all of its corn by truck-but ships its HFCS, ethanol, corn meal, and corn starch via both truck and rail.

    ABOVE: To restore a rail connection to Columbus, Nebraska, partially abandoned and dismantled in 1984, BNSF built a bridge across the Platte River. Pioneers described this waterway as being "a mile wide and an inch deep." BELOW: A grain elevator marks the location of Ulysses, Nebraska, as a short Columbus tine train cruises across gently rolling countryside on October 27, 1998. OPPOSITE PAGE: GP39M 2828 is again seen near Ulysses, but this October 13, 1998, train has a substantial train in tow.
    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 56

    For the first four years of the plant's operation, rail service was provided exclusively by Union Pacific, whose Council Bluffs Sub main line is about one mile north. This changed in 1996, when BNSF established itself as a strong competitor by promising better service and faster transit time. Offering rail service to MCP was no small feat for Burlington Northern & Santa Fe. It took nearly two years to complete the rail connection to Columbus, even though the city had, until fairly recently, been served by BNSF's predecessors.

    History

    The Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Columbus Branch was built by Lincoln & Northwestern between September 1879 and May 1880. The line later became part of the Burlington Route, and finally Burlington Northern, before being partially abandoned by BN in 1984. The last BN train to Columbus operated on March 23, 1984. The line was ripped up between Columbus and Bellwood, terminating just south of the Platte River. Between Bellwood and Seward the line remained in service, although trains were infrequent.

    Back in Business

    In 1992, shortly after Minnesota Corn Processors commenced operation at Columbus, BN realized the revenue opportunity. In summer 1994, the railroad replaced ties on the branch between Seward and Bellwood, fueling speculation that it was going to rebuild the line between Bellwood and Columbus. Further evidence came when MCP built a 1/2-mile spur from its plant to the abandoned BN right-of-way immediately south of the facility, along the north bank of the Platte River. On September 23, 1994, BN announced it would, indeed, rebuild the line across the Platte.

    RailNews - September 1997 - Page 57

    In addition to construction, there were several regulatory hurdles for BN to overcome. The railroad needed approval from the Surface Transportation Board to build the 4.6-mile extension to its branch. Furthermore, Army Corps of Engineers approval was required for the new bridge across the Platte River.

    Surface Transportation Board approval was granted on January 10, 1995, and BN wanted to start work on the bridge before the spring thaw, while the waters of the Platte were low. Local landowners, however, recalled the ice jams and subsequent flooding caused by BN's previous bridge. Consequently, lawsuits and eminent domain proceedings delayed the project for an additional six months.

    In spite of the legal obstructions, BN began upgrading the track between Bellwood and David City in February 1995. Construction on the Platte River bridge finally got under way in September. By November, BN was working north of the Platte on the line between the MCP spur and the Platte bridge, a section where yet another bridge had to be built to span an irrigation canal. Most actual track work was done in spring and summer 1996. (The new section of the branch consists of used continuous welded rail, giving the track the appearance of a major mainline.) The completed Columbus Branch officially opened on August 15, 1996, with the first BNSF train to MCP's Columbus plant operating the very next day.

    Operations

    Burlington Northern & Santa Fe's Columbus local (LNEB8411 under the new Transportation Support System [TSS]) operates as a turn, from Lincoln to Columbus and back. This train is a Sundays-through Fridays daylight job. As with most locals, this job draws crews with the highest seniority on the district.

    The local crew goes on duty at 8 a.m., when it moves its power, generally two or three Geeps, from the Lincoln freight pit to its train-which has already been made up by a yard switcher.

    The local usually makes it out of Lincoln Yard before 9 a.m., operating on the congested Ravenna Line between Lincoln and Seward. Once it arrives at Seward, about 45 minutes later, the train leaves the main line and heads up the branch, which meanders its way alongside the North Fork of the Big Blue River. Sometimes there will be work to do at towns along the way (if so, the crew will almost always take care of it on the way to Columbus).

    Although BNSF's TSS system shows an 11:45 a.m. arrival at MCP, 1 p.m. is usually correct. Minnesota Corn Processors has its own rail yard south of the plant, a s well as its own switcher, which has the out bound train already made up and an air brake test completed. All the BNSF local has to do is drop off the inbound train and pick up the outbound. The local usually calls the MCP plant on Channel 39 (160.695 MHz) as it is departing Bellwood. When it reaches the MCP spur, it cuts off its power, and heads towards the yard track where its outbound train is waiting. The MCP switcher will come out onto the spur, grab the inbound train, and drag it into MCP's yard. Once the BNSF's local pumps up its air, it departs. This entire process usually takes about 15 minutes.

    Although the local is scheduled to depart MCP at 3 p.m., it leaves by 1:30 p.m. usually. The new line north of Bellwood has a 40 mph speed, with 25 mph prevailing on the remainder. Generally, the Columbus Local will pass Bellwood at 1:45 p.m., David City at 2:30, and arrive in Seward at 4 p.m. Depending on the day's traffic load on the Ravenna Line, the local will be back in Lincoln 45 minutes later. All of these times, of course, can vary considerably.

    The train can have anywhere from a couple of cars to more than 80, and Sunday's train is usually the smallest. The local is an unmistakable, since it usually consists of Mep tank cars and, perhaps, a few covered hoppers.

    Minnesota Corn Processors seems pleased with BNSF's service, and the company's continuing prosperity provides a stable traffic base; consequently, the future of the Columbus Branch looks bright.

    Article Details

    • Original Author James E. Gilley
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date September 1997

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