Railroads have mutual benefit
Record crude oil production in western North Dakota over the past 18 months quickly overwhelmed the capacity of existing pipelines. The growing supply of crude needed a means to get to refineries in the South and West. But permitting and constructing pipelines, an efficient way to transport large volumes of oil, takes time and can get tangled up in politics, as we saw in the Keystone XL pipeline case.
The best alternative: the railroad.
As many as 10 crude-by-rail terminals are, or are expected, to be brought on line in the near future. At these terminals, oil companies will be able to top off unit trains with up to 188 tank cars and hauling nearly 70,000 barrels of oil to out-of-state refineries.
North Dakota and the railroad share a long and complicated history. It was the railroad that brought the immigrants to the homesteads here on the prairie. When it came to securing the state's freedom, North Dakotans had to break free from the grip of the railroad bosses. It was the railroad that maintained commerce's lifeline for many years between small rural farm communities, delivering mail and picking up cream and other farm produce. And for a long time, rail passenger service gave people a travel alternative.
Also, the railroad has had a history of carrying North Dakota wheat to market. And a future. Two huge grain elevators will be built in Morton County, one at Hebron and the other at New Salem, to make 110-car shuttle trains possible. There are already similar railroad-based grain terminals at Hensler in Oliver County and near Gladstone in Stark County.
Long unit trains carrying North Dakota wheat and oil to out-of- state markets look right at home among the Montana coal trains on the main line running through Bismarck and Mandan.
The railroad has been the state's key means of bridging its geographic isolation, its distance from markets. That has been the case for production agriculture as well as manufacturing and food processing. Oftentimes, being competitive gets derailed by transportation costs. When it came to the Bakken oil boom, having the railroad available to move the product has been an enormous benefit to North Dakota, especially over the short term.
The railroad's job isn't finished in North Dakota.