No Net Neutrality for Amtrak on the Hi-Line

Great Northern Depot 1909 Great Falls MT

NPR this morning followed-up on my blog yesterday on the boom in rail freight, especially in the Bakken.  Amtrak’s Empire Builder follow’s James J Hill’s pioneering Great Northern Railway route, from Chicago & the Twin Cities to Fargo, then parallel to US 2 (the “Hi-Line”) across North Dakota and Montana to points Northwest.

Oil business in North Dakota is creating some big headaches for Amtrak travelers. Trains on the popular Empire Builder route between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest are often delayed for hours.

One reason for the congestion is an influx of trains hauling crude oil across the Northern Plains.

The delays are becoming so bad that a passenger group now wants the U.S. transportation secretary to intervene.

The ‘N’ in BNSF stands for the old Northern Pacific and the old Great Northern.  BNSF gets paid for freight, and is getting paid for a lot more oil car freight than in years gone by.  BNSF tolerates Amtrak, when they have to.

A BNSF spokeswoman acknowledges that the railroad is disappointed in its service to all its customers, but she says oil shipments alone are not responsible for delays. In an email, the spokeswoman says volumes of many other kinds of freight increased significantly last year, too.

The railroad is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand capacity, but that track work slows trains. The spokeswoman also says extreme cold has exacerbated delays.

In the meantime, Amtrak may just adjust its timetables and build the chronic delays into its schedule, so at least passengers will have a better idea of what they’re in for.

There’s an analogy here to the “Net Neutrality” debate in broadband circles.  I, like many Conservatives, don’t like the government telling private business what to do—we shouldn’t regulate the internet, and there’s good arguments not to encumber railroads with undue regulation.  Yet I also understand that much of the internet, like the rail industry, is made up of common carriers, who should not be permitted to discriminate from a monopoly position.  Farmers have been agitating on the issue as long as there have been railroads.  It’s bad policy, and its bad for local business.

Passenger rail will never succeed in the United States without Net Neutrality on the rails.


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