Out in the middle of the Dakotahs is a brand spankin’ new monster of a beef processing plant, Dakota Beef Packers. Like a lot of monster food industry plays in South Dakota, it was financed by wealthy Koreans in return for citizenship, which may explain a few things. It’s a mile out of the nearest town, Aberdeen, which despite having three Super 8s ain’t all that big a town… Super 8 was founded there. The plant does appear to be right next store to Aberdeen’s sewage treatment plant, which says something about Dakota Beef’s logistics priorities. And while they picked a convenient place to dump their crap, they’re over a mile from a major highway on county roads. A couple miles to the north is U.S. 12, four laned with federal funds (South Dakota is good at that game) all the way east to I-29, another fine Dakota pork barrel project.

So clearly Dakota Beef has hung their future on trucking and highways to move 1500 head of cattle a day and the resulting marketable products in and out by highway. Today those roads for over a hundred miles in every direction are ice and snow covered, and this is a good day for truckin’ in the Dakotas- the roads haven’t been closed (yet). It’s been like that for the last couple months since normal winter returned to the northern plains, with the roads barely getting cleared and dried before the weekly blizzard turns them to highway hell again.

Now as every old timer up here knows, winter runs into the spring road breakup season, when the frozen roadbeds melt and truck load limits are dropped in response. Dakota Beef is over a mile down county roads, and Brown County just dropped weight limits on virtually every road in the county from 10 to 6 tons. That means that the trucks running in and out of Dakota Beef will have to run with reduced loads, and more trucks at more expense will be needed to supply Northern Beef and keep it from getting constipated with it’s own products. Worst case will be the outbound trucks, with the loaded weight of a standard 5 axle rig reduced from 40 short tons to 30, cutting payloads by about 40%. When your nearest major market is 300 miles away and you’re 1500 miles from either coast, those reduced loads eat up any profits.

Now not even a mile from Dakota Beef is a lightly used rail line, fact it looks to be just across the next quarter section. Couple miles north up that rail line is the old Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension, now owned and very well maintained by BNSF. BNSF even runs daily intermodal trains to the west coast and Chicago, and they’ve plenty of capacity to spare. Hustle up a bunch of refrigerated containers, a 4 axle container chassis and 4 axle semi tractor  to deal with the 6 ton load limits, get a similar 8 axle fleet of cattle hauling rigs to keep the plant supplied, maybe even see if they could convince BNSF to haul cattle again… Dakota Beef could keep their business running profitably regardless of weather and road conditions. But then again, maybe Dakota Beef’s Korean investors aren’t really in business to make a profit, given the previous bankruptcies at a the Korean funded Veblen mega dairies in the same state.

Meanwhile, despite the right wingers repeatedly reminding us that nobody rides long distance passenger trains, Amtrak again broke ridership records in 2012. Amtrak did that despite essentially no investment in new rolling stock in over a decade, and their legendary flagship trains like the Empire Builder are getting on forty years old. Amtrak would have probably filled even more seats if they had the seats to fill- with a three decades old fleet, these trains spend a lot of time in the shop. And remember the right winger’s rantings about hundreds of dollar per passenger subsidies? Well, passenger fares are now covering 88% of the cost of Amtrak’s long distance trains, a figure no other transit service can match. In fact, the short haul passenger trains and light rail that liberals love require far higher subsidies- fares on new billion dollar light rail lines often barely cover the debt service.

So I look out the window at again drifted over Minnesota 23, and with the winds gusting over 40 MPH the rest of the day it’s won’t get any better. Alongside it BNSF’s underutilized  Marshall Sub’s smooth continuous welded rail is overmaintained and sees maybe a dozen trains a day… Rails to the rescue!    

 

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