Despite Nationwide Traffic Slump, BNSF Spending Remains Steady in Montana

Railroad plans on investing $180 million in track, infrastructure in 2016

By Justin Franz
A BNSF Railway employee guides an engine into a connection with other train cars at the yard in Whitefish. Beacon File Photo

BNSF Railway announced this week it would invest more than $180 million in its Montana infrastructure in 2016, including track and signal upgrades.

The $180-million investment is about what the railroad spent in 2015 on maintaining its 1,900-mile rail system in the state, part of a 32,000-mile network that touches 28 states and three Canadian provinces.

“At BNSF we will always remain focused on operating the safest and most reliable network able to deliver Montana agricultural goods, wood products and energy commodities to markets across our nation and in the world,” said Dan Fransen, BNSF’s general manager of operations for the Montana Division.

According to BNSF, the railroad plans on replacing 120 miles of rail and close to 285,000 crossties in the state. It also plans on “resurfacing” 950 miles of track across the state. Resurfacing is a process where rock ballast beneath the track is disturbed to correct the alignment of the rails. Locally, the railroad plans on replacing 7,000 ties east of Whitefish and 11 miles of rail between Whitefish and East Glacier, according to spokesperson Matt Jones. Money will also be spent in Montana upgrading railroad signals to comply with the federally mandated safety system called Positive Train Control.

While the railroad’s capital spending in Montana remains steady, BNSF slashed its 2016 capital investment budget by $1.5 billion, down from a record $5.8 billion in 2015, as freight rail traffic drops nationally. According to the Association of American Railroads, freight traffic was down more than 10 percent in February compared to last year.

The drop in rail traffic can be attributed to the sluggish economy, especially reduced coal and oil production. Coal carloads were down 27.3 percent in February when compared to a year earlier and petroleum and petroleum-related products were down 20.8 percent, according to AAR, the nation’s railroad lobbying group.

Lower traffic numbers have forced large railroads across the country to cut its capital spending programs. Union Pacific, the nation’s largest railroad, announced plans to spend $3.75 billon on track and equipment, down from $4.2 billon in 2015.

“Our railroad is in the best shape it has ever been,” said BNSF Chief Executive Officer Carl Ice in a press release earlier this year. “While our customers’ demand outlook has softened in a number of sectors, regular maintenance of our network continues to drive the majority of our annual investments and helps ensure we continuously operate a safe and reliable network.”

A large part of the railroad’s 2016 capital investment, approximately $600 million, will be used to purchase locomotives and freight cars that are used across the entire rail system.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.