RANIER, Minn. -- Every day of every week of every month, nearly two dozen trains plod through the small border town of Ranier.
It's a tiny spot on the map -- the road sign says Ranier has only 199 residents -- but the Canadian National Railway border crossing just east of International Falls sees the most railroad cars of any crossing between the U.S. and Canada, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The thriving U.S. economy and burgeoning demand for Chinese imports and Canadian crude oil has created a rail bottleneck at the Minnesota-Ontario border, where a 1907-vintage train bridge crosses the Rainy River where it runs out of Rainy Lake.
double the number of a few years ago, some nearly two miles long, an expected 8,000 trains this year alone -- have to slow down to 8 mph to be x-rayed to clear U.S. customs.
The trains often stop entirely when some of those cars get pulled out to be inspected in person. And the train crews also change in the rail yard south of Ranier, forcing another stop.
The bottleneck is causing headaches for residents who have to wait for an average of 10 minutes before each train clears the town's main street. Some waits are longer than two hours, said Dennis Wagner, Ranier's mayor.
"There are more than 20 trains every day now that block our main street; some of them are two miles long. It's all the containers from China and also a lot of oil now from Canada," Wagner said. "It's never been this busy before. And it's only going to get busier."
By law trains are supposed to block roads for 10 minutes or less, and Koochiching County has issued tickets for waits longer than an hour.
The escalating problem, coupled with intense locomotive headlights and horns at all hours, has been maddening for some residents and visitors in the tourism-focused border region.
"It's not just more trains, but each one is longer. It was almost to the point of civil disobedience; parking trucks on the tracks," Wagner said. "But we're making a little progress now. We're going to get it declared a quiet zone to get them to stop using the horns. ... And if there's a bonding bill at the Legislature, the state is going to help us out with a bypass."
If they aren't stuck in traffic -- it's hard to back up with a fishing boat or semi-trailer attached -- Ranier residents and tourists can back up and drive around the rail crossing using Minnesota Highway 11, which has a bridge over the tracks -- a detour that runs more than two miles east of town.
"It's especially a problem for emergency vehicles like ambulances. It's two-and-a-half miles out of the way, each way, so that's five miles round-trip,'' said state Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who, along with other lawmakers, is pushing for state money in the Legislature's construction/bonding bill to solve the issue.
But about 50 families who live south of Ranier along dead-end County Highway 24 -- also called Van Lynn Road -- don't have any bypass around the slow-moving or stopped trains.
"There is no other way in or out for them," Wagner said. "If a train gets stuck there, the people are stuck, in or out."
Better economy, more trains
The trains are coming from Canada's west coast, mostly the port of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where CN has a major shipping-container operation that unloads giant ocean freighters from China and places the containers onto trains.
And the line from Prince Rupert to America's heartland, namely Chicago, runs right through Ranier. This track, which runs south to the Twin Ports and on south across Wisconsin, is why CN purchased the old Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific and Wisconsin Central lines years ago.
There's also oil from northern Canada tar sands oil fields crossing nearly every day now, filling the U.S. demand for cheap oil while new pipelines are debated.
The number of CN trains crossing the border at Ranier peaked at 16 before the depths of the last recession, then bottomed out at about 12. Now, that number has increased to 22 trains per day, CN notes, and that number is expected to keep going up. The trains also are getting longer, and customs officials have said some 18 percent of all goods moving from Canada to the U.S. by rail comes through Ranier.
In fact, the Winnipeg-to-Chicago corridor that passes through Ranier, Duluth and Superior is among the busiest and most important of all CN's lines, said Patrick Waldron, CN spokesman in Chicago. CN is spending some $2.2 billion system-wide this year to upgrade tracks and other infrastructure to handle more trains, including $40 million in the Duluth area, he said.
There's more traffic all along the corridor, Waldron said, but he acknowledged that "Ranier is unique" because of the bottleneck.
"The people of Ranier live in a place where they are watching the international economy pass by," Waldron said. "There's no doubt that rail traffic is up as the economy has bounced back. We are investing millions of dollars in that corridor to reduce bottlenecks and get more trains running more goods with less delay."
In addition to containers of consumer goods from China, and Canadian oil, Waldron said automobiles and wood products also make up a big part of the goods passing through Ranier. Waldron noted that CN already has invested heavily in the Ranier-area rail yards to keep trains moving faster and with fewer stops.
"But it's an international border. There are some things that can't be avoided," he said.
While a robust economy is good news, note politicians involved in the issue, there's been a clear impact on the Ranier area. In the past year three of Ranier's four business have closed, including Woody's Pub, Wagner said. He thinks that's at least in part because of the train delays.
"If you are going for something to eat or a beer or whatever, you aren't going to wait for a train for a half-hour. You are going to drive on to the next place," Wagner said. "The U.S. consumer benefits from all this commerce moving through here. ... It's good for Wal-Mart and Kmart. But it's happening on the backs of people in Ranier. It's all coming right through here."
Bonding bill uncertain
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan have joined local lawmakers in pressing the issue and held an April summit on the problem.
Ranier is asking for $500,000 in the construction bonding bill to upgrade a private driveway into a county road just east of town, shaving off most of the bypass miles. The road would connect Highway 11 -- just east of its railroad overpass -- with County Road 20, creating a shorter detour around the often-blocked railroad crossing in the heart of Ranier.
Wagner also has praised another project to add flashing warning signs along Highway 11 that would give drivers advance notice when a train is blocking Spruce Street in Ranier so they don't turn onto a blocked road. They would then have the option of taking the bypass.
"It's a $500,000 fix to a really big problem," Wagner said. "It doesn't solve all our issues. But it helps. We're really hoping there's a bonding bill yet this year so we can get it done."
Earlier plans for an overpass within Ranier have been scrapped as too expensive and not compatible with the town's layout, Wagner said.
Yet another plan, to move the rail customs station farther south so that slow and stopped trains don't block traffic in Ranier, is intriguing but would require a safe, secure zone along the tracks and probably reams of federal red tape and money, Dill said.
The County Road 24/Van Lynn Road problem is more expensive. Officials say $10 million or more is needed from the state to build an overpass over the tracks and to also extend the road east and north so it connects with Highway 11.
As of Friday, however, the prospects for any state bonding bill appeared uncertain with just days left in the legislative session. Dayton wants a significant bonding bill for projects statewide. DFL senators are preparing a small one in case the issue becomes part of session-ending negotiations. But House Republican leaders prefer not borrowing any new money for public works projects in 2015.
Nolan said the issue is emblematic of a larger problem: The U.S. needs to spend more money on infrastructure to keep the economy moving safely along.
"The Ranier-International Falls project calls for a county road extension and overpass to solve the isolation of 50 area families that lose access to the cities -- sometimes for hours -- when trains of 150 cars and more cross the road and back up for inspection," Nolan said in a letter e-mailed to constituents. "Blocked railroad crossings can pose life-threatening danger in time of emergency. And with rail cars carrying 21 million barrels of Canadian oil a year coming across the 107-year-old bridge at Ranier-International Falls, the chances of an accident only become greater as time goes on."