by Gilbert B Norman
As the article appearing in Today's New York Times notes, this short line operates over portions of the MILW's Lewistown Great Falls branch; it also appears that BNSF is "not exactly" being a good neighbor:
- DENTON, Mont. — The billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett, in buying control of the nation’s second-biggest railroad last month, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, said he believed in America’s future and the role that railroads would play in building that future.
On a much, much smaller scale, the eight employees of the Central Montana Railroad say the same thing. In their case, the belief is drilled down to the grass-roots level and to the future of Denton, population 300, from which the Central’s tiny, 84-mile empire extends.
The question facing this part of Montana, as tough economic times have stressed farming and railroading alike, is which future — the macro or the micro — to believe in and fight for.
“If this railroad goes down, Denton will dry up and blow away,” Dennis Ayers, 38, said as he eased engine No. 1809 — an Eisenhower-era relic, like Central’s five other engines, all refurbished from the scrap yard — into the shop building on a recent afternoon.
Burlington Northern officials say they understand, too, the stress that agricultural communities are under. But farmers have to survive first if towns like Denton are to have any hope at all — and cheaper rail shipping costs are the means to that end, they said.
Last month, Burlington Northern shut off payments to the Central that had been locked in for years by contract — by coincidence, company officials say, around the time Mr. Buffett took over — prompting a lawsuit by the State of Montana on Central’s behalf. Burlington officials said the payments had inflated shipping costs for local farmers.
The big railroad has also been offering discounts if farmers bypass the Central and truck their wheat, the big cash crop in this part of Montana, directly to the main Burlington Northern line about 40 miles from here. A text-message system was recently established to alert growers to the best prices.