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Report: Railroad Bottlenecks Could Squeeze MT Ag

PHOTO: A new report raises questions about whether the rail system can handle more loads of coal and oil from the Powder River Basin - bound for markets overseas. Photo credit: Energy Information Administration.
PHOTO: A new report raises questions about whether the rail system can handle more loads of coal and oil from the Powder River Basin - bound for markets overseas. Photo credit: Energy Information Administration.
February 20, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. – A new report on rail shipping shows the tracks already are congested in several areas, and as Powder River Basin coal is marketed for export, it raises questions about whether there's room for that much additional rail traffic.

Terry Whiteside, the report’s author, says there already are two major bottlenecks between coal country and the coast.

One bottleneck is through downtown Billings and Whiteside doesn't see that much room to add many more trains without detrimental impacts to other shipments, including wheat.

"They've spent years developing the reputation of being reliable,” he says. “Always we'll be there. And that's in jeopardy now."

Whiteside says Montana makes most of its money by sending things out of state – and much of that moves by rail.

His report doesn't call for changes in shipping arrangements. Instead, it provides information he thinks is valuable to industries that rely on rail shipping, and communities along the way that will endure more train traffic.

Whiteside wants Montanans to understand that the state depends on rail shipping for its economic health.

So when coal train traffic doubles what's traveling on the tracks, it will be noticed.

"It will affect all the commodities on the system,” he stresses. “And scarcity of rail capacity will lead to less reliable service and higher prices."

The decisions about more train traffic aren't made locally, according to Whiteside.

The coal train issue is connected to Washington, Oregon and British Columbia – and whether or not new coal export terminals are constructed to handle the coal from the Powder River Basin.

The report was released with support from the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MT