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Baucus asks BNSF to keep line open

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway asking that the branch line from Havre to Big Sandy be kept open.

The letter, sent Thursday to BNSF president and chief executive officer Matt Rose, also asks the railroad not to cancel a discount on grain freight rates and to keep open branch lines from Plentywood to Scobey and from Glendive to Circle.

"All he's asking them to do is treat ag producers fairly and give them a fair price and at the same time enhance service," Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser said today.

BNSF on Jan. 1 canceled a discount on grain freight rates it implemented a few years ago. The railroad has announced it is considering abandoning lines from Plentywood to Scobey and from Glendive to Circle, Billings transportation and marketing consultant Terry Whiteside said.

Farmers in the Big Sandy area say they believe the railroad is considering canceling service to the Big Sandy elevator as well. The railroad won't say whether it plans to close that line.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said today the railroad received Baucus' letter and it is under review.

The rates BNSF sets are market-based, he said, and increased demand for grain transportation this year has caused rate increases in ocean and barge shipping as well as railroad shipping.

He said Baucus' comments about the branch lines will be addressed once the railroad has the opportunity to further review the letter.

Big Sandy farmer Dan Kidd, a member of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee's board of directors, said the letter is part of the ongoing effort by Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., to help Montana's grain farmers with shipping problems.

"They are very aware that we are being treated very unfairly in Montana because we are a captive state," he said.

Kidd said he doesn't expect the letter to cause BNSF to change its plans. A bill Burns introduced last year might help, he said. Baucus is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate and Rehberg is co-sponsoring a similar bill in the House.

"We need to put more pressure on (BNSF) but we need the legislation, that's what we really need," Kidd said.

Whiteside, a transportation consultant for the Wheat and Barley Committee, said the existing laws create the problems.

"The railroads are not the villains here. They may be acting villainously, but they're not villains," Whiteside said. "They're doing exactly what the law lets them do. It's the law that needs to be changed."

He said an example, which Baucus addresses in his letter, is that the railroad is late in sending trains requested to ship grain, and yet it's raising rates.

"The railroad can't perform, can't meet its obligation, yet it raises its rates at the same time. That's an unacceptable situation," Whiteside said. "Somebody asked me why they are doing it, and I said, 'Because they can.


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