The US Doesn't Have Enough Railroads to Keep Up With the Oil Boom

Passenger rail has never been known for punctuality (at least in this century), but over the past year, Amtrak's long distance passenger trains have reportedly gone from being late 35 percent of the time to being late 60 percent of the time. But don't blame Amtrak—it's being forced to make way for the thousands of trains carrying oil from the Midwest.

The oil boom in North Dakota and surrounding states has already transformed the economy of the entire region, with workers pouring into formerly rural areas and housing (not to mention crime) skyrocketing at an incredible pace. It's transforming the landscape, too, with waste accumulating and spills occurring at a regular rate. But beyond economic and environmental impacts, the oil boom is also effecting another critical piece of infrastructure: railroads.


In an interesting report in The New York Times today, we learn that most of the oil extracted in the region is carted away on trains, and they're clogging up the railroads. Not only are passenger trains later and later—shipments of industrial and consumer products, agricultural goods, and even cars are late. And as America begins exporting its fossil fuels to countries like China, it's going to get even busier:

The problems are only expected to get worse. American coal exports to countries like China, which are picking up as domestic demand falls, will also compete for space on trains, as new coal export terminals are planned at several ports in the Pacific Northwest... In the United States, a record harvest of corn, soybeans and wheat is expected this year, adding to the stress on the nation's rail network.


Meanwhile, Stateside industries are suffering. This summer, the University of Minnesota released a study showing how the delays had cost Minnesota farmers over $100 million. And carmakers told the NYT that it had 200,000 new automobiles "in storage" because there aren't enough trains to deliver them. Meanwhile, emergency responders are being trained to respond to potential tanker spills, with setups like this:


Image: AP Photo/Dave Kolpack

Which, better late than never. North Dakota is struggling to set up safety regulations on the oil tankers proliferating on its railroads, like the one that occurred in December last year, sending a fireball into the sky:


Image: AP Photo/Bruce Crummy.

Faced with the traffic jam, companies are pouring money into improving the tracks and fixing routes. It's an interesting glimpse into the unexpected second life of an infrastructure that has been declining for decades—what remains to be seen is whether this will become a rallying cry for supporters of the Keystone Pipeline, which some say is a safer—though not truly safe—alternative to trains and the trucks currently used for transport. [The New York Times]


Lead image: TTstudio.

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