Amtrak service is not impossible across South Dakota

A rail switch on the former Milwaukee Road at Stamford in occupied South Dakota

Watco Companies owns some 43 shortline railroads in North America and Australia but in Chicago the firm has been accused of environmental racism after the US Environmental Protection Agency found high levels of manganese, lead and arsenic in the soil on the city's Southeast Side. Chicago is a notorious railroad bottleneck where spills of toxic materials are myriad. 

Despite those revelations the State of South Dakota sold the former Milwaukee Road right of way from Mitchell to Rapid City to Watco instead of deeding it back to the tribal nations signatory to the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. Based in Pittsburg, Kansas Watco's biggest customer is Koch Industries, a major campaign contributor to Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and her whims. 

Before it was ousted the Trump Organization's Department of Transportation headed by the wife of Republican former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell awarded more than $5.6 million in grants to upgrade infrastructure and enhance rail safety in the red moocher state that is South Dakota including $2.24 million for the Rapid City, Pierre and Eastern mainline. The move comes after catastrophic plunges in commodities prices, numerous wrecks and water breaches on track owned by RCPE, a subsidiary of Genesee and Wyoming operating just north of the former Milwaukee line on a nearly parallel trackbed. Kevin Schieffer knew how impossible it was to maintain track between Fort Pierre and Rapid City and cashed in when Genesee and Wyoming bought the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad.

Recall that in 1997 South Dakota got $23 million for going without Amtrak service so then-Gov. Bill Janklow funneled much of it into the Governor's Club and in 2007 Gov. Mike Rounds spent some of it on an airplane for his personal use. Now, Gov. Noem is using it to campaign for issues and candidates for the extreme white wing of the Republican Party. So today, South Dakota is the only state where Charles Koch has been able to thwart passenger rail and the only state in the continental United States without a proposed Amtrak station. 

In 2015 I called an RCPE executive who said that the line between Crawford and Dakota Junction, Nebraska connecting to Rapid City is active and hauling bentonite south to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and to Union Pacific. She said that although there is virtually no eastbound shipping over the line between Wolsey and Rapid City, South Dakota or Colony, Wyoming the State of South Dakota subsidizes enough siding development, money that the state receives from the federal government through the transportation bill, that shipments of one-way freight allow the railroad to cash flow. 

The railroad is content to move product at ten miles an hour between Wall and Fort Pierre where Cretaceous shale buckles track bed every year. She also said RCPE has no intention to secure leases for new rail bed from Colony to the Powder River Basin coal fields and that the railroad won't transport coal across South Dakota. When asked she could not say whether the company's parent, Genesee & Wyoming is talking to that state or its residents about leasing the relatively short distance from Colony to its rights on the BSNF main line near Gillette. 

New Mexico's GOP representative voted with the state's Democrats for final passage of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015. South Dakota's Republican At-large Representative now Gov. Kristi Noem voted for an amendment that would have ended federal funding for Amtrak as did Montana's GOP At-large representative, Ryan Zinke, even as they voted to continue subsidized air service. 

A 2015 multi-modal intercity passenger rail plan proposes a route between Minneapolis and Denver that would serve just Sioux Falls in South Dakota but connect with the California Zephyr at Omaha as part of a Phase Two development. The Pierre Shale between Oacoma and Rapid City is a major obstacle and is why passenger rail across South Dakota failed but two east/west rail routes across South Dakota exclusively for freight is lunacy. In addition to the money the federal government is spending the State of South Dakota is throwing some $20 million at the RCPE so it can haul whatever freight it wants.  

As rail coal traffic dies Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and the Big Sky Rail Authority have moved ten counties to restore the North Coast Hiawatha line through southern Montana after Amtrak ended service in 1979. 

One solution to bring Amtrak to South Dakota is an intermodal route between Minneapolis and Denver through Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Crawford and Alliance, Nebraska. It involves three or more rights of way: the Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe Railway, the Rapid City, Pierre and Eastern Railroad, the former Milwaukee Road and maybe the Union Pacific. The sale of the old Milwaukee Road to Watco is not a done deal and would have to go away. Watco is buying 285 miles of track. At 6 acres per mile of right of way they are paying about $7602/acre. Why? The sale is intended as a slam of Warren Buffett who owns the BNSF in favor of the Koch Network, nothing more. 

But the bridges across the Missouri and Cheyenne Rivers on the Milwaukee Road are junk so are the ones across the Cheyenne and White Rivers on the RCPE south of Rapid City. The Milwaukee Road terminates at East St. Pat and Elk Vale Road in Rapid City so a depot there has merit but the purchase of a right of way from there to the RCPE and its route south to Dakota Junction in Nebraska would have to happen. There is an abandoned track bed between Crawford and Torrington, Wyoming that could serve Cheyenne: a destination on Amtrak’s Front Range expansion timetable.

The US is not China; we can’t build rail lines anywhere we want to because the state can't just seize land without due process. The unhinged South Dakota Legislature is largely a product of ALEC because the Koch network has billions stashed tax free in South Dakota banks. To them passenger rail is socialism.

My home town of Elkton is the first South Dakota town on the east end of the old Chicago and North Western. In 1997 I considered shipping the salvage oak flooring from the Showboat Ballroom in Lake Benton, Minnesota to St. Onge west of Sturgis where there’s a siding. Stamps in the rail there are from 1898. The first town on the south end in South Dakota is Ardmore where I almost bought property that includes a siding on the Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe. 

A water pipeline from the Missouri River to Rapid City would cost some $2 billion and tear up several hundred miles of unbroken high plains but passenger rail connecting the Midwest to mountains in existing rights of way is doable progress.

But here’s the dealio. If an existing track bed between Oacoma and Rapid City can be salvaged and made good enough for passenger rail it admits the geology is stable enough for a tar sands pipeline. Measures must be taken not just to prevent collisions with motor vehicles but with wildlife, too.

Look on the bright side, South Dakota. It's not in President Biden's rail plan but if someday Amtrak connects the Southwest Chief at Pueblo or Trinidad, Colorado to the Empire Builder at Shelby, Montana through Denver there might be a depot at Edgemont. 

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