Paying the freight

Northstar commuter trains are getting waylaid because, not surprisingly, freight trains are a whole lot more profitable for the railroad:

In what has become a chronic problem for the Northstar line from Big Lake to Minneapolis, heavy freight traffic pushed the commuter train off schedule and is expected to do so several days this week.Officials for BNSF, which owns the tracks, said Monday afternoon that riders should “expect it will take several days to work through the freight congestion,” according to spokeswoman Amy McBeth. “In the meantime, we are rerouting traffic where possible … to help with the recovery.”A tweet from Metro Transit warned Monday morning’s riders to “expect significant delays (60-90 minutes) due to freight traffic.” Commuters could wait for their trains or board replacement buses.

A few observations:

  • While it’s likely disconcerting to some Northstar riders to find out that their patronage is less important to BNSF than a tanker of oil, it really shouldn’t be surprising. Trains are about freight and have been from the very beginning.
  • One of the things that’s changed for BNSF in recent years is that they are hauling a lot of oil from North Dakota on their lines. At least some of that oil would get transported on the Keystone XL pipeline, which is still being held hostage. Anyone who rides the Northstar really ought to consider that, especially if a particular rider opposes pipeline construction.
  • I rode a lot of trains when I lived in the Chicago area, 20 years ago now. The rail lines in Chicago were coming into the city from all directions and the service was, in the main, pretty good. Chicago is a very different place geographically than the Twin Cities. The places where rail works the best are cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, where the city and its suburbs grew along the rail lines. The Twin Cities aren’t like that. It gets old for some people when we belabor that point, but it’s important. Running trains into downtown Minneapolis is useful for some commuters, but it has limited utility for many people in the area. And because of that, rail is always going to be an afterthought around here. The railroads need to concentrate on their paying customers.