Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via “rolling pipelines” – freight trains that tow a million barrels of oil around the United States every day. Production of Bakken crude has tripled over the past three years, and 79 percent of it is shipped out by rail.
The resulting sharp increase in rail traffic doesn’t just threaten communities along the line that are unprepared for their explosive cargo — a threat that the US Department of Transportation recently issued new rules to address. Growing freight volumes are also delaying millions of passengers aboard Amtrak or commuter trains, most of which share tracks with ever more freight trains. Nationwide, the number of delayed Amtrak trains has increased by almost 75 percent. As Tanya Snyder reported yesterday, that results from a court ruling that left Amtrak powerless against freight train interference. Around Chicago, hub of the continent’s railroad network, delays have multiplied on the region’s busiest commuter rail line – a Metra line operated by BNSF, which is also North Dakota’s biggest freight hauler.
The American Association of Railroads reported an 8.5 percent increase year-to-date in the number of American freight trains carrying oil across the country, and a 9.1 percent increase reported from Canadian trains. Since 2011, the number of cars of crude oil shipped nationwide has doubled.
Oil is having a particularly heavy impact on rail operations along certain companies’ lines, and none more so than BNSF. Its transcontinental trunk line spans North Dakota, and its branches serve 21 of North Dakota’s 25 oil-producing counties. As a result, BNSF hauled more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in 2013, “up from practically none” just four years ago, NPR reported.
The boom has strained what used to be isolated stretches of railroad. Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder train spans the country’s northern tier, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via North Dakota and Montana, using BNSF’s Great Northern route almost all of the way. “The Builder” now has the dubious double distinction of being both the most popular of Amtrak’s transcontinental routes and its most delayed route nationwide, arriving on time about once a week. Delays have become so routine that Amtrak recently padded its schedule by three hours. BNSF’s quarterly report [PDF] shows growing volumes across all business lines, but notes that increased industrial shipments in the second quarter of 2014 are “primarily due to increased shipments of petroleum products [and] frac sand.”
Derrick James, Amtrak director of government affairs for the Midwest, told Streetsblog that national on-time performance has seen “a dramatic decline,” dropping “from 80 percent in February 2013 to 55 percent through April 2014.” James said that as reliability has dropped, ridership on both long-distance and short-distance lines has also dropped by 4.9 percent.
Amtrak “conductors produce delay reports,” James points out, “and these delay reports pinpoint a dramatic increase in rail traffic — especially trains connected with hydraulic fracturing, sand trains and oil trains.” On the Empire Builder in particular, Amtrak conductors cite “train interference” as the principal cause of delays.