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  Comments (39) Total Sunday Apr. 20, 2014
Oil Cans
Closing Range
I must be getting old, because now I’m starting to see things come full circle.

Around 1980, after the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began pumping, a Northern Tier Pipeline was proposed. NTP was to be laid from Port Angeles, Wash., to, I think, Clearbrook, Minn., where it would hook into the eastern petroleum pipeline system.

I immediately hated the idea of such a huge pipeline being laid. There was a perfectly sane alternative just screaming to be explored – and I had an economics class that required a 30-page term paper. So – I explored:

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road) had just abandoned its main line across Montana. My paper proposed rebuilding it for oil unit trains.

The rebuilt railroad would be capable of taking all of NPT’s proposed throughput and still be able to carry other freight. Furthermore, hauling by rail would be far more flexible, given the oil unit trains could be shifted to new routings and customers over time.

Even after providing for a short pipeline across Puget Sound to keep tankers in safer water, the railroad option was only about 20 percent costlier.

Oil cans on the Milwaukee made sense from a conservation standpoint, too. Trains required a lot less steel up front than a 48-inch pipeline. Even better, there would be no need to dig it out of the ground after the oil played out.

Yeah, I was ahead of the times … the paper graded a big fat C (for Crazy, I guess). But ever since, I’ve wondered what if?

I’m not wondering any more. The fracking revolution spurred another revolution in oil transportation, and today, taking advantage of route options, American railroads move more crude oil over longer distances than ever before.

Unfortunately, moving that oil resulted in one of America’s most murderously stupid train wrecks, killing 47 people in Lac Megantic, Quebec. It was the kind of tragedy that can never be fully compensated for – and there have been some horrendously close calls since. Can we avoid another? I sure hope so, but forget about banning or re-routing oil trains.

I can understand the concerns of urbanites about a pileup in their town. Trouble is, where do most railroads go? Where the customers are, and everywhere in between.

I understand why Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow worries about a flaming mess of oil cans in the Middle Fork. That would be incredibly bad juju – as it would be in any river. But most of America’s major rivers are paralleled by rail lines, often right on the banks.

Are oil trains extra dangerous? Well, in the Casselton derailment and fire, the oil cans were punted off the tracks by a derailing grain train. If Mr. Mow is serious about partnering with BNSF Railway about keeping operations safe, perhaps he should revisit BNSF’s abortive proposal for conducting active avalanche control on Snowslip Mountain.

It’s also worth noting that Montana has hosted one of America’s pioneering oil can trains for over 20 years now: Montana Rail Link’s “Gas Local” over Evaro Hill between Thompson Falls and Missoula. The Gas Local has never made the news – quiet testament to the fine job MRL crews do every day, just like our local Whitefish crews do with their Bakken oil cans to Anacortes.

So, when we talk about oil trains, let’s be realistic. As with so much other “stuff we like,” our oil comes from elsewhere, is processed elsewhere, and then shipped to us through someone else’s backyard. I mean, we could drill our own backyard oil up the North Fork, have our own backyard refinery, but we don’t.

There will be adjustments made to emergency-response capabilities, but those capabilities will have to be balanced with the actual risks involved. New operating safety rules will be implemented. After all, railroad managers and stockholders know that one wreck can negate decades of operating profits – and kill lots of people.

The safe transportation of oil on our railroad system is a serious issue that won’t be wished away through fear. Handling oil cans properly requires, and deserves, a darn healthy dose of respect.
On 03-04-14, Looney_Tunes commented....
Eileen sweetheart, Stormfront is calling you.  Late to the Klan meeting?
Kellyn Brown
Kellyn Brown6h
Landslide slowly destroying part of Wyoming resort town http://t.co/ggvVuuJKTG
Dillon Tabish
Dillon Tabish19 Apr
KALISPELL, MT: You'll find the box in a brick building filled with history. Skateboards, pizza, clocks & ties #THTH14
Molly Priddy
Molly Priddy18 Apr
@natashavc @TaraAriano @allyzay Oh no, I've been thinking it's a room for all your types of mustards. Recalibrating my ideas now.
Tristan Scott
Tristan Scott19 Apr
@tristanscott *Billie Joe
Flathead Beacon
FB Headlines18h
Kalispell’s Core Area Redevelopment Plan Inches Forward http://t.co/EO2le2frPY