By SUSAN GALLAGHER
Associated Press Writer
BOX ELDER - An 18-mile stretch of railroad track in the heart of Montana's grain country has become a parking place for some 2,000 idle rail cars, a use some people on the state's northern tier find disconcertingly symbolic.
BNSF Railway parked the flatcars on the tracks between Big Sandy and Havre in mid-December and they will remain there into the spring, spokesman Gus Melonas said Monday. BNSF's critics, some in the grain industry, say using the tracks for storage is oddly symbolic of the railroad's desire to have the branch line declared unnecessary for transportation, then abandon it to save money.
‘‘Now the rails have become a parking lot,'' said farmer Bob Quinn of Big Sandy. ‘‘That's one step better than having it taken out. But only one step.''
Melonas said there has been no decision on the future of the line.
‘‘We regularly evaluate the status of low-volume lines to determine if projected business levels support the operating expense to keep the lines open,'' he said.
Big Sandy farmer Jon Tester, who presides over the Montana Senate and is running for the U.S. Senate, said abandonment of the tracks looms large as an economic development issue for this part of Montana, where people struggle to get good jobs.
‘‘When you start pulling out infrastructure that's been there over 100 years, that's a negative direction to be heading,'' Tester said Monday. There has been talk of building an ethanol plant in the area and although there is no firm plan, a potential developer stands to see easy rail access as a plus, Tester said.
The parked railcars that form a chain of iron run south along U.S. 87, stretching from U.S. 2 near Havre to Big Sandy. The chain breaks only at crossings. Melonas said the flatcars, used to haul large containers that also move on ships and trucks in what the railroad calls ‘‘intermodal'' transportation, are being stored on the branch line because BNSF does not wish to tie up other places as storage locations.
‘‘Cars are constantly being cycled, offloaded, stored,'' Melonas said. ‘‘It's part of railroading.'' The Big Sandy-Havre branch line previously was used to transport grain stored in elevators that stand alongside the tracks, but now grain is trucked to larger collection points in northern Montana, then emptied into railcars typically bound for West Coast ports. Melonas said no grain has moved on the branch line in the past couple of years. Its last outbound train was in 2003, he said. Five inbound, non-grain cars used the tracks last year.
Richard Owen of the Montana Grain Growers Association said parking cars on the branch line ‘‘does diminish our ability to keep that line open in the future,'' because the parking can be used to illustrate claims that the line is of little use.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer said concern about the future of the branch line between Big Sandy and Havre is one reason he asked Doug Buttrey of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to appear in Big Sandy last fall.
Any suggestion that the tracks are not in usable condition is negated ‘‘when they back in 20 miles of cars'' for storage, said state Agriculture Director Nancy Peterson, adding she talks to BNSF almost weekly about Montana transportation issues.
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