The trains that I can see out my window at the Tribune have been different lately. Mostly they used to be coal trains. Hopper car after car of Wyoming coal rumbling eastward to drive turbines to produce electricity, and empty cars clanking back for another load.
Now long gangs of tank cars carrying crude oil roll heavily on the main line to out-of-state refineries. The same shift has occurred on the north branch. Trains are moving North Dakota crude from the Bakken to markets in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the same way that they haul coal and wheat. Some of that crude is making it to Pennsylvania and other points on the East and West Coasts.
The change from trains hauling solid carbon-based energy (coal) to shipping liquid carbon-based energy (crude oil) came in the last several months. Or at least that’s when I began to notice it. The changes have come because the Bakken has reached a steady production stage, and the abundance of natural gas has driven this energy source’s price down, meaning new power plants are shifting from coal to natural gas for fuel.
It is another visible indicator of change in North Dakota -- economic change.
When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, the freight hauled by rail was general in nature and, at harvest, wheat. Of course, there was also a steady stream of passenger trains through Bismarck, Mandan, Hebron and Dickinson. Then came coal trains that could hold you up at a crossing forever. The next stage featured 100-car unit trains of grain. Now, oil rolls down the line.
The number of unit trains -- 200,000 barrels per train -- operating in Montana and North Dakota grew to five each day in 2012. Expectations are that number will grow to eight per day this year. It has meant the hiring of 600 workers to make this happen. Railroad jobs have been prized over the years in North Dakota -- good wages, good benefits.
The daily volume of oil shipped by BNSF has grown steadily. At the end of 2012, trains were hauling 400,000 barrels per day. BNSF officials talk about growing that volume to 1 million barrels per day.
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Meanwhile, new pipelines remain sketches on paper, waiting for capital, permits and permission.
The railroad has become an important player in North Dakota’s crude oil business, as it was, and continues to be, for the state’s farm economy.
It’s not just moving oil, the railroad also now brings in pipe and fracking sand. As western North Dakota becomes industrialized, the railroad has become a key industrial hauler. (It’s worth mentioning that BNSF was bought by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in 2010.)
The railroad has been a part of North Dakota life since before statehood. It was the reason Bismarck and Mandan were plotted on either side of the Missouri River. The branch lines that followed once served a network of community depots and way stations that brought eggs, milk and cream to the major cities and, in turned, filled the shelves of local shops. People from small communities along the way could take the train to Bismarck, Minot, Fargo or Minneapolis.
Now that network of branch lines helps drain crude oil from the Bakken down to the mainlines and on to the coasts.
(Ken Rogers' column appears each Saturday. Contact him at email@example.com.)