What comes first: People or oil?

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The recent explosion — both literal and figurative — of railroad shipments of crude oil from North Dakota has opened a new front in the long-running tension over which interests are served by our transportation system: people’s or commerce’s.

The two can’t be neatly divided, of course, because the movement of goods benefits people. But it’s interesting to note that as the former Great Northern rail line from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest becomes more clogged with shipments of petroleum, manufactured goods and agricultural products, it’s Minnesota’s only passenger trains that are being detoured and delayed.

According to an Amtrak service alert, its Empire Builder trains will have “significant delays along the route due to freight train interference” through at least the end of February. BNSF Railway, from which Amtrak leases track rights, has ordered westbound Empire Builder trains to detour from Fargo to Minot, N.D., missing stops at Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby. Amtrak is filling the gaps with bus service.

“We are working to reduce delays whenever possible and provide our passengers with more reliable service,” Amtrak announced. But it’s clear that freight takes precedence over human travelers.

How about the matchup between people and potentially dangerous tank cars full of volatile oil? Fred Millar, a Virginia rail safety consultant, told me the railroads have no desire to reroute these burgeoning shipments — many made up of flimsy and obsolete “Pepsi cans on wheels” — around heavily populated areas, including the Twin Cities. And government can’t or won’t make them do it, either.

In response, two Minneapolis legislators have proposed charging 0.01 cents per gallon of crude shipped in the state by pipeline, rail or truck to beef up disaster readiness. Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, chairmen of the Transportation Finance Committees, also called for tougher safety standards, new emergency response plans and readiness for spills if oil is shipped by tankers on Lake Superior.

At the suggested rate, each 30,000-gallon tank car would be assessed $3. It’s reported that the entire program could raise up to $30 million a year, but even with today’s booming oil traffic through Minnesota the railroads would pay well under $1 million. That’s a rounding error for businesses that have been investing tens of billions in their infrastructure to meet the new demand.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has joined six other states, 10 ports and the BNSF in the Great Northern Corridor Coalition, a group representing freight interests from Chicago to Washington state. Its mission is to improve the corridor of rails and roads that carries 200 million tons of freight a year with regional cooperation, planning and shared project implementation.

MnDOT senior rail planner Dave Christianson said the corridor is “vital to communities,” adding that “we rely on this multimodal transportation system to move U.S. products to global markets and deliver necessary commodities to our communities.”

This is all well and good. It would be nicer, though, if the group also paid attention to the safety and convenience of the people in those communities who live along the corridor and travel it by rail.

Join Minnesota 2020 tomorrow for a broader Tuesday Talk discussion on the future of transporting oil through Minnesota.