Staying on Track

BNSF’s track in Montana is the best I’ve ever seen it

By Dave Skinner

Warren Buffett’s privately held Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway has made the Beacon’s pages quite a bit lately. First there was the Whitefish yard dog, which, thanks to concerned railroaders, is now a much-safer house dog. Next came news the company will upgrade the ventilators and power supply for the 6.8-mile Flathead Tunnel, part of annual capital-improvement and maintenance spending about a third higher in Montana than last year. Along with that came the data that accidents are down 55 percent over the past decade. Good news, right?

Of course that good news had to be tempered just a little by the other paper, which coincidentally reported on “conservationist concerns” about BNSF’s oil-train traffic over Marias Pass, namely that a “spill, even of one of those big tank cars, is unthinkable.”

Well, there’s a big difference between unthinking opposition to something, and thinking things through a little.

First of all, BNSF can’t refuse the oil trains. Why? Because BNSF is an interstate common carrier. Common carriers, whether railroads, barge lines, truckers, even pipelines, cannot refuse outright to ship a product. This duty became the law over a century ago at least in part because too many robber barons felt it was “good business” to refuse service to competing barons, or at least massively overcharge for shipping — and undercharge their buddies. Another purpose for the requirement to accept business is ensuring the efficient flow of interstate commerce across multiple carriers AND political jurisdictions. Only if a product is proven unreasonably hazardous to transport using reasonable care can a common carrier refuse to carry it. An atheist railroad can’t refuse to handle Bibles, nor can an atheist city prohibit passage of same through town.

Second, the Middle Fork of the Flathead is not the only river allegedly “endangered” as the environmental group American Rivers declared last year. Most of the oil cars we see here are destined to and from the Anacortes refinery complex (Shell and Tesoro) on the coast. Previously dependent for over 40 years on tankers carrying Alaskan crude from the North Slope via Valdez, Bakken crude now fills a supply gap for Seattle’s market. So, on the round trip between Williston to Anacortes, these trains run hundreds of miles not only alongside the Flathead, but also the Missouri, Milk, Kootenai and Columbia, then along Puget Sound tidewater and (gasp) underneath Seattle.

Third, while I understand that Greens can’t resist bringing up the Lac Megantic disaster as a possible fate for the Middle Fork (and a sure-fire fundraiser), that wreck was the perfect-storm combination of slapdash maintenance, careless employees, poor communications, incompletely trained first responders, and a sharp curve at the bottom of a grade. Minus any one factor, and there wouldn’t have been 47 Canadians immolated to worldwide horror.

In the end, the railroad company and its owners were ruined by the wreck. I’ll bet former track owner Canadian Pacific’s stockholders are really glad they’d pawned off that track several years before.

In stark contrast, BNSF is a little better off, precisely the sort of multi-billion-dollar company toxic-tort attorneys fantasize about suing, and they won’t be spinning off the Marias Pass route anytime soon.

Might BNSF want to keep their billions? Yep, which is why BNSF’s track in Montana is the best I’ve ever seen it, their locomotives the newest ever, with today’s national tank car fleet having the lowest average car-age ever. And, just in case, they’ve acquired the emergency equipment that will be required when, not if, there’s an oil-train derailment. BNSF’s bean counters and lawyers have millions upon millions of reasons to think about the unthinkable, and they obviously have done so, hard.

Nonetheless, even with Positive Train Control and other technology, railroad operations are still a human endeavor and therefore can’t be perfect — which brings me to those who have a much bigger reason than anyone else to think hard about the unthinkable: BNSF’s train and maintenance-of-way crews. Simply by staying on track, they have earned, and earn every day, a lot more credit, notice and respect than we have given them.

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