Town vs. Train

How an eight-year-old fight over a set of train tracks has pitted past against future, farmer against doctor, and the mayo clinic against a railroad boss

THIS IS A STORY about the first train tracks built west of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. After decades of quiet decline, the line that runs through Rochester has lately become the subject of wonderful dreams and terrible nightmares. Built 144 years ago to move grain out and settlers in, it is still operational, but in certain places its primary purpose has long since left the realm of function and entered that of charm. A person must actually hop over one of its spurs to descend to the basement of the Redwood Room, one of the few cool bars in downtown Rochester.

The groundwork for today’s billion-dollar dreams of coal-shipping fortunes was laid in early December 1862, when a line known then as the Winona & St. Peter and now as the Dakota Minnesota & Eastern (DM&E) traveled its first 11 miles from Winona to Stockton. The route into the small farming towns nestled in glacial-carved bluffs that dot the Mississippi River Valley had previously given stagecoach travelers “everlasting jolting and poundings, and aches and pains,” in the words of a newspaperman from that time.

By October 1864, the tracks had descended along the south fork of the Whitewater River into the Zumbro River Valley, where 10 years earlier a settlement of nine shanties perched alongside a 16-foot falls had taken the name of Rochester. Then, as now, the railroad was not universally welcome. Thomas Cummings, one of the town’s first two residents, had resisted the surveyor sent to grade a path for the train across his lands. The surveyor shot Cummings in the chest, then high-tailed it to Winona to avoid lynching.

The train’s arrival in Rochester had been preceded by that of a diminutive, 45-year-old tailor, newspaperman, and doctor named William W. Mayo. Along with his sons William and Charles—who learned anatomy by examining the skeleton of an executed Dakota warrior—William W. founded the Mayo Clinic, one of the earliest group practices in the history of medicine, and today, a $5 billion medical empire that is the largest private employer in the state of Minnesota. Mayo may have begun doing business in Rochester two years before the rails, but the two grew in stature together. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the clinic relied heavily on trains to transport its A-list roster of patients from across the country.

Today, DM&E runs just a handful of relatively short trains through Rochester daily, occasionally depositing a load of coal at the doorstep of the public utility. Because the rails are so old, the trains travel slowly. Starting around 2010, however, assuming the completion of its proposed $6 billion, three-year upgrade, DM&E plans to send mile-long, mine-loaded coal cars barreling through the center of town. The company projects that 10 trains at most will pass through Rochester each day, but critics fear the traffic would substantially exceed that.  

While the expanded line might rattle the doghouses and backyard swing sets of the homes that abut its path (plus the windows of at least one posh senior high rise) and, according to some, create a heightened risk of chemical contamination, it also would carry the hopes of the dozens of emptying towns between Winona and Rapid City, South Dakota, that have embraced the rails as these towns have for the past 150 years. Rural residents take heart in federal estimates that an expanded line could add as much as 20 cents per bushel to farm revenues—should the railroad choose to divert cars from hauling coal—by delivering such grains as corn to market as well as to the 15 ethanol plants slated to open on its route. (“There’s no guarantee we will get X amount of cars,” concedes Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, “but they [DM&E] understand the importance of agriculture.”)

The line also would answer the prayers of dozens of beleaguered rural power cooperatives, which currently suffer at the hands of a cozy shipping duopoly that delivers virtually each and every lump of coal to the region at take-it-or-leave-it prices, rates that arbitrarily jumped 93 percent in the last year alone. “Are you familiar with the term captive shipper?” asks Tim Thompson, president and CEO of Freeborn-Mower Cooperative Services.

“WE HAVE AGREEMENTS AND support from 55 out of 56 communities,” says DM&E president and CEO Kevin Schieffer. “It is a pretty startling statistic.” You can’t hear a speech by Schieffer—a youthful and vigorous advocate of the largest upgrade of the railways in more than a century—without hearing the populist position that all but one of the affected towns have signed on to the deal, and that he has approached each one equally. This position may be geographically balanced, but the argument has its flaws. That 56th town, Rochester, with 95,000 residents, holds 40 percent of the population in the train’s trajectory. (Of the 55 towns that have come to terms with the railroad, 32 have fewer than 1,000 residents, 19 have fewer than 500, and one has precisely 6.)

We have agreements and support from 55 our of 56 communities. It is a pretty startling statistic.”

Schieffer’s unlikely journey as a rail baron began some 20 years ago in the Washington office of Senator Larry Pressler, a Republican from South Dakota. A legislative aide two years out of law school, he was asked to meet with a rail boss who wanted to shut down a hundred-year-old abandoned rail line that farmers and grain elevator operators had relied on for decades. Schieffer rounded up investors, overcame political opposition, and picked up DM&E in a fire sale.

Since then, he has expanded his rail network to 2,500 miles—in large part, by acquiring the Iowa Chicago & Eastern line that spills south of central Minnesota—and overcome an array of anti-competitive legal barriers that would not only have prevented the DM&E from making the connections it needed to do business, but also required it to pay for others it did not need.

NOT ONLY IS ROCHESTER BY FAR the greatest mass of humanity in the project’s path, it is an economic engine for the region and uniquely plentiful with sick people. “We receive people with very complex afflictions,” says Mayo CEO Glenn Forbes, MD. “Within a one-to-two-mile stretch of the railroad we have 2,000 to 3,000 hospital beds.” Roughly 150 of those beds, he adds, belong to patients completely dependent on ventilators and other machines that cannot simply be rolled down the street in the event of an evacuation.

The evacuation scenario arises from the potential to run high-speed “through trains” loaded with ethanol, phosphoric acid, flammable gas, liquefied petroleum gas, anhydrous ammonia, and other hazardous materials just blocks from one of the highest concentrations of critical- care patients in North America. It has put the clinic’s sober leadership in the uncomfortable role of advancing a veritable doomsday scenario—one that no one in state leadership with any influence, save for outgoing Senator Mark Dayton, seems to take seriously. (“The railroad will enter Rochester over my dead body,” he has said. Dayton believes a bypass around Rochester is the only real form of mitigation possible, telling the Star Tribune last summer, “I continue to be amazed that it’s even a matter of dispute.”)

“If there is a derailment of hazardous material adjacent to the clinic campus, we will be presented with a situation that is unprecedented in the history of medicine and health care,” says Forbes. “The whole world will be watching.”

Both Schieffer and the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal regulatory body that oversees train traffic, argue that the continuous rail line DM&E wants to lay across Rochester will actually improve safety. And in fact, on those lines where DM&E has installed new track, it has had only one derailment, and that was caused by a signaling error that would not be possible in the Rochester overhaul. Others note that toxic chemicals already move down the current track and the state highway that bisects Rochester (as well as on rails near large medical centers in other cities) every day. But the new line holds the potential for an ever-greater volume of train traffic through Rochester, on continuous-welded rail or “ribbon track,” which, because it doesn’t expand or contract like old-fashioned rail, can break in cold temperatures and “wiggle” in high temperatures. Speed introduces yet another element of risk.

“Even though it’s true they are already moving hazardous materials through town now, the safety issue comes along when you move the cars so fast,” says Democratic state representative Tina Liebling, whose district has 11 roadway intersections affected by the train and who is one of the few officeholders opposing the expansion. “If something would happen, it’s more likely the cars would break open. I have not heard that point answered from the other side.”

According to Mayo’s civil-defense scenarios, a one-inch hole in a car carrying chlorine or natural gas would create a “kill zone” that safety workers would refuse to enter—one that, with the right winds, could blanket its campus and downtown. “If you’re in that zone,” says Forbes, “you’re on your own. And that is a conservative scenario. The railroad plans to run high-speed trains through the area. If there’s a rupture, civil-disaster planners tell us the numbers and size of the hazardous material would be even larger. I would like to be wrong; then we could all go back to trying to cure cancer and heart disease. But everyone we contact comes to the same conclusion: that this is a very dangerous project.”

Further bolstering the Mayo position: DM&E has the worst safety record of any railroad in the United States. “It has seven to seven-and-a-half times the accidents per car of any railroad in the country,” Forbes notes. “The government loaned it $230 million to improve its safety record, and since then its safety record has worsened. It’s almost unfathomable that they are asking for more money now. If you were a hospital with the worst safety record in the country, everybody would be all over you—patients, insurance agencies, government regulators. Medicare would withhold your funds. Such a hospital would immediately be trying to get itself back to a safe operating mode or it would be closed. Here I am seeing a railroad with the worst safe safety record in the country applying for and potentially receiving money to expand its operations—it just doesn’t make sense.”

DM&E argues that abandoned track has adversely affected its safety record, which it says has improved as those lines have been replaced. Supporters of the upgrade question the clinic’s conclusions and, indeed, its character. “In my opinion, it’s selfish,” says Jeff Redalen, director of the Tri-County Electric Cooperative and a Rochester resident who runs a furniture store. “I have a lot of friends who work for Mayo and many of them question Mayo’s motives. Many see the benefits of the ethanol industry to area farmers and look at Mayo as being selfish. There’s more to southern Minnesota than Mayo.”

Schieffer accuses Mayo of having “too much money,” adding, “They are an easy target for any consultant to come in and sell a bill of goods.” He says Mayo leaders have told him that their concern in opposing the train is that they believe it could harm its ability to compete against Johns Hopkins Hospital for out-of-town visitors, a claim the clinic does not dispute, albeit alongside larger concerns about patient safety.

Not only is rochester by far the greatest mass of humanity in the project’s path, it is an economic engine for the region and uniquely plentiful with sick people.

“We are a destination medical center,” Forbes says. “People make a choice to leave their home, where they may be receiving very good care, to come to Rochester. They do that because of a host of different reasons, but we are totally dependent on people making that choice. If, for whatever reason, people decide ‘I’m not sure that’s a good choice, why don’t I go somewhere else for my care,’ we would have to massively change operations in Minnesota.”

Some locals resent the project because they believe it would ultimately change the character of their town. “You have a street out in front of your house,” says Liebling. “Does that mean they have the right to decide to run semis down it all day long?”

Photo by Michael Crouser

The train dispute has exposed roiling undercurrents of intra-Rochester resentments. Supporters are still stinging from the effort by Mayo during the late 1990s to run the train across their farms. Opponents see rural neighbors more concerned about getting a bump in their prices than about what happens to the city. As one downtown businessman who is against the train sees it, “They [train proponents] come to the Mayo Clinic when they are dying of cancer, but they don’t care what happens to the Mayo campus.”

DM&E HAS SOUGHT TO FORGE agreements with Rochester that would surpass STB mandates, with proposed guarded rail crossings, security fences, reduced whistle-blowing, disaster-preparation plans, and slower speeds (though this could tie up traffic in town even more as well as increase the amount of time hazardous materials are present). But Mayo and the city have refused to play ball, or at least in the public forums requested by Schieffer. For eight years, Rochester has told the train boss to find another way to the Mississippi, and for eight years the rail boss has said no.

Theoretically, since DM&E owns the tracks, it can do whatever it wants with them. But it needs cash. DM&E has applied to the Federal Rail Authority for a $2.3 billion loan; the remaining  funds would be borrowed from private sources. (DM&E, the Coalition argues, is only worth about $111 million—an estimate the privately held company disavows.) That is a whopper of a sum, even by government standards, made possible by the 2004 Federal Transportation Bill authored Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who previously worked as a lobbyist for DM&E. After losing challenges in rulings by the STB and the Eigth Circuit Court of Appeals, Mayo has lately focused on oposing the loan. If approved, the public loan would be the largest ever granted to a private corporation. The Federal Rail Administration’s public comment period closed October 10; its final decision is expected soon.

If the train prevails, it may shake up more than just the rail bed. In something of a first, the politically averse Mayo leadership recently thanked Tim Walz, who is challenging Congressman Gil Gutknecht for the First District seat, for opposing the loan and arguing for better protection for Rochester. An invitation-only listening forum convened by Gutknecht and Senator Norm Coleman that included a Transportation undersecretary seems only to have exacerbated tensions. Coleman and Gutknecht continue to express concern for the safety for Rochester but have not opposed the expansion.

“I have a lot of respect for our legislators,” says Rochester City Council president Dennis Hanson, “but at this point I think they are not listening to their constituents. Senator Coleman and Congressman Gutknecht said they support Rochester, but go back in the archives and see what they’ve done on this issue the past eight years. Not much.”

“I never thought I’d see people mock the Mayo Clinic and their research,” Walz said after a testy public forum organized by GOTRAC, a coalition of farm and power organizations that support the project. “I believe the congressional representative has tried to play both sides of the fence on this issue. A lack of leadership has compounded the problem.”  

Working in conjunction with the City of Rochester, Olmsted County, and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce under the banner of the Rochester Coalition, Mayo has hired public-relations professionals to promote its cause locally and in Washington, D.C., in part, through a “track the truth” campaign. In a conservative town where both the head of the chamber of commerce and a principal Mayo spokesperson have worked as press aides for Gutknecht, a tectonic shift of anti-GOP sentiment may be under way.

“I think it’s a huge Republican problem,” says Liebling, raising the elephant in the living room. “John Thune did it; he’s the DM&E lobbyist who turned senator with Republican money, and Coleman and Gutknecht have, for some reason, I’m not sure why, closed ranks around him. Even when it hurts their own area. The loan piece of it alone is outrageous.”

“RIGHT HERE IS THE RICHEST coal basin in the country,” says the seeker of that “outrageous” loan, who has produced a map and circled the northeastern corner of Wyoming known as the Powder River Basin. “Right here,” continues Schieffer, drawing a circle around Wisconsin and Michigan, “is the biggest demand for coal in the United States. And we are the straightest line from here to there. That’s why this works for us.”

The tracks that currently run out of the Powder River Basin converge in Chicago by way of Montana and Nebraska. By re-routing through southern Minnesota, Schieffer’s train cuts hundreds of miles off their routes—resulting, he promises, in a sharp reduction in shipping costs, which will then be passed on to coal plants and eventually homeowners.

The two lines that already pull coal out of the Powder River Basin do so on shared track, a maximum-capacity shipping scenario that allows the trains to charge more for the shipment of coal than the coal itself costs. Some say the current system is one derailment away from causing energy blackouts throughout the Midwest. Schieffer, who plans to carve a new route into the mines, sees his project as larger than Rochester, one that would fill a national need for train shipping. But while he has overcome every regulatory and legal barrier placed in his path until now, Schieffer may ultimately be stymied by the complicated future of coal—a fuel so inefficient that the trains themselves long ago exchanged it for diesel.

“Spending $6 billion to build a railroad to perpetuate the use of the most carbon-intensive fuel—at best a bridge fuel to clean energy—is an incredible misallocation of resources,” says Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. “The minute you put a price on carbon emissions [as through the proposed global carbon-trading program], the price of coal will go up. It’s a fuel with a limited lifespan.”

So what is feeding the frenzy to ship a 19th-century fuel source across Minnesota? “This whole comeback of coal is predicated on political opportunity right now,” says Goodell, who points to the Bush administration’s open-door policy of energy exploration at all costs. “It’s a great business decision if you don’t consider the trashing of the climate and atmosphere. [They want to act] before the economic costs of carbon are universally acknowledged. Everyone knows that will happen, the question is when. All of these railroads are trying to get this going before that happens. They know that, politically, this is as good as it’s going to get.”

THE TRAINS MADE ROCHESTER and southern Minnesota a viable center for agriculture and medicine. But the trains have also disappointed people. The Winona & St. Peter was celebrated wildly when it first pulled into town in 1864. It was going to smooth the path for wagons traveling over the Stockton hills and give farmers a way to get their grain to market in Winona year-round.

The love affair lasted about six years, after which time the train was widely despised, according to historians. The railroad had spent all its money building the line, then had to sell it to a rival rail network, which started charging more to ship wheat east from Rochester than from Mankato, more to ship lumber west from Winona than from Chicago, and the same to ship wheat to Chicago as to Winona. How that same rail bed and its neighbors will fare in its new bid for life in the 21st century remains to be seen. MM

Paul Scott is a Rochester-based freelance writer.