Burlington Northern Santa Fe has a green light to speed through Miles City at up to 60 mph, and the town isn’t happy.
“The town is pretty upset about it, to tell you the truth,” said Butch Grenz, Miles City mayor. “I have got more unhappy constituents over this than anything else.”
Caught between the busy switchyards of Glendive and Forsyth, Miles City is no stranger to trains. But the southeast Montana town, known for its cowboys and annual Bucking Horse sale, is mostly a pass-through for BNSF.
The railroad’s path bisects the town, with city hall a couple blocks west of the tracks and Custer County High School a block to the east. There are 13 blocks of homes fronting the tracks on the east side.
Grenz said he got a notice in the mail from BNSF several weeks ago that the track was classified by the Federal Railroad Administration for speeds up to 60 miles per hour.
“We all feel it’s just unsafe,” Grenz said. “They used to have a maximum speed for cars that had oil or whatever of 20 mph. Now, they lifted those speeds, too.”
Grenz said he used to be a section driver for the railroad, which does side cars in Miles City in a yard that includes at least 15 sidings and it's at times filled with hazardous materials tank cars, or empty strings of coal shuttle cars. The mayor said he believes trains are speeding up because Berkshire Hathaway, which bought BNSF several years ago, is getting its money from the trains. Berkshire is the diversified holding company of Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett.
“What you’re seeing is Mr. Buffett is a better businessman than the last owners of the railroad were,” Grenz said.
In the past few years, BNSF has invested more than $100 million in its southern line across Montana, which stretches from Glendive to Laurel, where the loads are transferred to Montana Rail Link to be hauled into the Idaho Panhandle.
BNSF has installed sidings long enough for a mile-long train to leave the mainline and keep rolling while another train passes by. This year, the railroad is relocating workers from Glendive and Forsyth to Laurel as it transitions to longer runs.
But timing is everything on a single rail line with trains traveling in both directions. Speed is part of the BNSF equation, concurred Matt Jones, BNSF spokesman for Montana.
“We have obviously invested a lot of money to increase capacity in the northern corridor, $100 million on the Forsyth subdivision, between Jones Junction and Glendive,” Jones said. “A lot of that was to increase capacity. Increasing capacity includes longer sidings and things like that. In order to increase capacity, we have to increase efficiency.”
In the past two years, BNSF has struggled to move all the freight needing track time across Montana. From fall 2013 through last summer, Montana and North Dakota grain trains were on a track space waiting list that sometimes stretched for more than a month. Power plants in the Midwest sweated not having enough coal piled on the ground to comfortably keep their steam turbines running.
Customers from specific industries accused BNSF of catering to oil shipments at the expense of grain and coal. The railroad faulted the congestion on weather and construction delays as it tried to improve track in order to accommodate more trains.
BNSF also added 250 locomotives to its fleet so it could get freight moving.
The increased speed limit through Miles City was not BNSF’s doing, Jones said. The government made the call.
“The Federal Railroad Administration determines what class a track is, and they set the maximum allowable train speeds,” Jones said. “The track through Miles City has been class 4 track for some time. I don’t know when it was upgraded, but it has been for some time.”
BNSF argues that the railroad has fewer accidents when trains move at higher, consistent speeds because it’s safer than accelerating and decelerating trains over the long haul. Not all trains will travel at the maximum speed, Jones said.
Miles City is the latest town to see train speeds increase, but it isn’t the only one with 60 mph speeds. Hardin, Hinsdale, Lodge Grass and Malta are towns with 60 mph train limits.
In the past year, track speeds have also increased in Casper, Wyo., and Devil’s Lake, Wyo., to 50 mph.
Last week U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., wrote BNSF about the change in Miles City. He also spoke to the media about it.
“Just because you can go that fast, doesn’t mean you should,” Tester said.
In a letter to BNSF CEO Carl R. Ice, Tester asked that the railroad meet with Miles City townspeople to review the speed change, which affect four town crossings.
“These grade crossings are in relatively busy areas of Miles City, where it is essential to maintain safety standards tailored specifically for high-traffic areas,” Tester said. “I urge BNSF to engage with community leaders to review the speed change decision and to consider alternative options.”
Montana Railink, with track from Billings to the Idaho Panhandle has no plans to increase the speed of its trains, a company spokesman told The Gazette.