Sunday, August 24, 2014

Today's Train of Thought- Limited Commercial Interruption, August 24th, 2014

Today's Train of Thought takes us to the Land of 10,000 Lakes- specifically, the gritty commercial, industrial, agricultural and transportation hub that is the Twin Cities.

In this era where seemingly every shortline, regional or industrial switching outfit is affiliated with conglomerates such as Genesee & Wyoming, WATCO or Omnitrax, a shortline operator that doesn't fall under that umbrella is something of a rare find. This is especially true of big-city terminal, transfer or switching roads such as the Minnesota Commercial. Back before there were more than six Class One rail carriers in the United States, the burdensome task of dragging cars from one classification yard to another or switching local industries along the way often fell to entities that jointly owned by the rail carriers serving a given area.

A few such examples exist today- Chicago has the Belt Railway of Chicago, St Louis has the Terminal Railroad Association of St Louis and since 1987, the Twin Cities has had the 150-mile Minnesota Commercial. Going by the MNNR abbreviation, the Minnesota Commercial was the successor to the Minnesota Transfer Railway which was at one time jointly owned by robber barons and fallen flags alike- the Northern Pacific; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Milwaukee Road; Chicago & North Western; Rock Island; Soo Line; Chicago & Great Western; Minneapolis & St Louis and Great Northern. By 1970, more than half of these railways would find themselves part of the Chicago & North Western or the newly-formed Burlington Northern. Most of the MNNR's trackage is within Hennepin county and includes numerous spurs, branches and yard tracks. By 1987, when the Minnesota Transfer was reorganized as the Minnesota Commercial Railway, the Rock Island had dissolved and the greatly-truncated Milwaukee Road had been taken over by the Soo Line.

Since the late 1990s, ownership of the MNNR has been more or less divided up between the four remaining Class 1 rail carriers that serve the Twin Cities- BNSF, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific. The MNNR interchanges with all four of those plus regional Twin Cities and Western in St Paul. The Minnesota Commercial also has something of a following among rail enthusiasts for its tendency to utilize oddball power, such as ALCos, MLWs or rebuilt GEs or EMDs. To this day, a pair of locals serving an industrial park on the north end of the MNNR reportedly utilize a pair of former Green Bay & Western ALCo RS27s.

More recently, the MNNR has moved towards adding older four and six-axle GE roadswitchers onto their roster- including the Santa Fe-rebuilt U36C, reclassified as the SF30C [other examples can be found in Brazil and Mexico- NANESB!]. And like nearby shortlines such as the Wisconsin Northern or St Croix Valley, traffic has heated up in recent years thanks to the oil and gas industry's appetite for frac sand from the upper Mississippi River valley.

Here, Minnesota Commercial SF30C #50 is seen with an MNNR MLW M630 and another 6-axle GE as it charges through the Westminster area of St Paul, MN with more than 100 gondolas of wet sand in tow on the BNSF Midway Sub on May 9th, 2012. According to photographer Brian Kays, the unit sand train also required two B23-7s as mid-train helpers as the Texas bound sand train scaled the line out of the Mississippi River Valley.

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