Friday, August 26, 2005

USA Today on the Powder River Basin

An article in yesterday's USA Today (August 25, 2005) has a lot to say about the relationship between railroads, coal mines, and utilities. Interesting tidbits include the fact that this railroad is the most heavily traveled track in the world, and the fact that 40% of all coal supply in the US comes fromthe Powder River Coal Mines. But the biggest reason for the story is the disruption of rail traffic due to recent derailments.

If you have ever witnessed the never ending onslaught of coal trains that make their way south from Bill, Wyoming or north into Gillette, you know that this trackage is the epicenter of the world's heavy haul railroad experience. Nothing anywhere can compare with the intense, never-ending, and very hard work that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) do hour after hour, day after day to move these trains from mine to utility. Originally built as one track about twenty-five years ago, the joint trackage is now three tracks in many places. Even with three tracks, the pounding of coal trains that go by on fifteen minute headway creates a frightening amount of wear and tear on rail, ties, bridges, and ballast.

The wear and tear on railroad personnel is significant, too. People rotate in and out of jobs in the Basin regularly.

Both the BNSF and the UPRR have learned a great deal about maintaining this trackage, and have made many, many improvements to their infrastructure over the years. The article point this out. But are these improvements enough? Railroads have had to evolve from a management that rationalized and removed fixed plant to a management that has had to invest in new and better facilities. The evolution has not always been easy.

If the BNSF and the UPRR cannot prevent the disruptions that recently occurred, others are beginning to offer alternatives, including the construction of electrical generating plants in the Powder River Basin, thereby allowing electrical transmission lines to replace railroad tracks to ultimately distribute electrical power. Another option, one clandestinely but continually fought by both the BNSF and the UPRR, is to allow the Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern Railroad (DM&E) access to the Powder River mines.

The whole situation is interesting. You will realize that after you read the article.


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