Bakken rail network is one big traffic snarl – crushing delays for AMTRAK

[Editor: The author of this article, Michael Byrne, lives within sight of a major rail throughway, and offers first-hand observations about the “crushing delays” on passenger rail service.  – RS]

The Oil Boom Is Putting the Squeeze on America’s Passenger Rail Network

Written by Michael Byrne  |  April 19, 2014
Image: BNSF oil train/Roy Luck

I’ve boasted about my front yard proximity to the northern United States’ dominant freight rail line on Motherboard before. It’s just right there, across a patch of grass and down an embankment: the Northern Transcon, pushing miles and miles of connected freight carriages to and from the Pacific Northwest’s port cities. It’s a real-time view of America’s goods economy as it breathes in and out. That economy, as revealed by my Transcon neighbor, is currently hyperventilating, and the flow of traffic is often nearly continuous, at least within the boundaries of single track (single lane) line.

The flood of trains traveling over the Northern Transcon in the year 2014 has a lot to do with oil. The line, the property of the BNSF railroad, connects with the Bakken formation oil fields in North Dakota, where the railroad has been dumping money lately in a race to upgrade and expand its local capacity/network: a North Dakota oil boom has brought with it a North Dakota rail boom. Oil trains, now buffered at each end by an empty box car for safety, exit the Bakken zone heading for Great Lakes ports and refineries to the east and, to the west, the export terminals around Seattle and Portland. It’s reasonable to say that the oil boom would only be possible with the railroad.

In the late-’90s BNSF reopened a third route connecting the Midwest (including the now booming oil fields) and the Northwest, the once-mothballed Stampede Pass over the Cascade Mountains. Overall, the railway’s been booming like crazy since then. 2014 should be a record for the railroad, thanks largely to crude oil shipments. But, after this past winter, the Bakken fields’ associated rail network is one big traffic snarl, and the railway is pouring money and manpower into the region to untangle it: 500 locomotives, 5,000 railcars, 300 new crew members. Of course, the company’s interest is in getting oil out of the region, but a cruel side effect of the jam is crushing delays within the United States’ passenger rail system.

Those systems, dominated by state-pseudo-owned railway Amtrak, typically run on tracks owned by freight railways—leasing trackage rights—except in a few special areas, like California, the Northeast Corridor, and parts of Michigan and New York state. Elsewhere, particularly across the country’s midsection, passenger trains are at the mercy of private freight-hauling corporations. If you’ve ever made a cross-country rail trek, you are most likely already aware that on-time performance just isn’t a relevant concept. Last month, the Empire Builder, the Amtrak route that travels from Chicago to Portland and Seattle via BNSF’s Northern Transcon, was on-schedule 17.4 percent of the time.

We’re not talking about minutes either. The westbound Empire Builder is scheduled to pass through here at eight in the morning; usually, it shows up mid-afternoon, if not eveningtime. Finally, at the beginning of this month, Amtrak took the rare step of admitting defeat. It changed the schedule, padding an extra three hours onto the eastbound train schedule and an hour on the westbound (which is still hardcore wishful thinking or a total delusion). The pleasure of spending nine hours at a lonesome Midwestern rail station in the dead of winter for a late train is a distinctly American feeling (or Siberian, perhaps), putting the shitty microwaved cafe car food and overpriced Heineken into perspective, if the train isn’t out of both already.

Perhaps even more pressing is the situation in Minneapolis, as BNSF delays hit the Twin Cities’ local commuter line, the Northstar. Freight delays have put not only the entire existence of the (relatively new) service in jeopardy, but a forthcoming light-rail line as well. As is typical, the BNSF response is petulance. From a recent Minneapolis StarTribute editorial: “As BNSF Vice President Bob Lease points out, the conflict with commuter rail is almost unavoidable; the system is built for freight, which tolerates a degree of delay that commuters cannot abide.”

Unfortunately, as much of a shrug as Lease’s comment is, he has a point. Passenger rail service shouldn’t have to rely on freight rail companies being nice. Passenger rail needs public investment—new, faster tracks—and it needs the teeth to punish its corporate landlords for 17.4 percent on-time performance, when that performance is nigh entirely at the whims of said landlord.