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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

June 6, 2013 at 10:28 AM

Finding the many vital rail links to the Puget Sound

I find evidence of the Puget Sound economy’s long reach all over, including in the June issue of Trains magazine. An article highlights the 25-year survival of Montana Rail Link, with a 623-mile main line running from Sand Point, Idaho, to east of Billings, Mont. This is the former Northern Pacific, the first transcontinental to reach our region. But it became redundant with the 1970 merger involving the NP and the Great Northern and creating the forerunner to today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe. BN did a lease-purchase agreement with MRL founder Dennis Washington in 1987; in 2047, MRL has the option to purchase the main line outright. BNSF uses the former Great Northern as its main rail route, although it sends trains over MRL, too. And MRL has been successful in keeping and growing its own traffic.

One big blow came during the recession when Seattle’s Plum Creek Timber sawmill in Pablo, Mont., was permanently shut down. As a result, MRL was forced to close an entire branch line. “Losing Plum Creek was like losing Sears and JCPenney out of a mall,” the article quotes MRL President Thomas Walsh. The company was hammered by the housing collapse. It had also become a real estate investment trust, a boon to investors who get most of the profits, but a situation that doesn’t allow executives to be patient.

Meanwhile, the magazine — and you have to buy it, this isn’t available on the “tubes” (what a concept) — has a fascinating map showing all the trains operating on Montana Rail Link at 10 a.m. on Feb. 25. Again, the Puget Sound is heavily represented.

For example, at that moment BNSF train 773 is using MRL to reach Tacoma with 108 cars of grain from Minnesota. Two other long grain trains are headed there from South Dakota. In the other direction, a hotshot intermodal, BNSF 4976, is rushing full containers from Tacoma to Omaha, where they will be reassembled into trains to reach destinations throughout the heartland. Yet another eastbound container stack train is hauling 66 cars with Asian imports from Tacoma to the advanced Logistics Park yard near Chicago. Westbound again, BNSF 996 is taking 71 empty intermodal cars to Seattle; so is 7885, with 66 empties from Chicago (America’s biggest export back to Asia is air).

And that’s just a piece of a snapshot of one hour in one day. MRL has allowed BNSF to offload the costs of maintaining two main lines to the Northwest, while we keep the benefits. All these lines come together around Spokane and then fan out again to the Puget Sound and Portland. BNSF also reaches the Puget Sound from Portland. Union Pacific comes north via Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Many of these routes are hauling more freight than they were a century ago.

And Don’t Miss: Talk of economic recovery in Greece is premature — and all about justifying austerity | The Guardian

Today’s Econ Haiku:

“Freeze! Drop it, botnets!

FBI MSFT!”

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Comments | More in Infrastructure, Pacific Northwest economy, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Railroads

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