With the founding of Amtrak in 1971, most people have assumed that the major class 1 railroads, which include Berkshire Hathaway’s wholly-owned BNSF, got out of the passenger rail business.
The exodus was logical, as post WWII passenger service had become a tremendous money drain with the advent of jet air travel and the building of the interstate highway system. That one-two punch sent ridership plunging.
But Not So Fast
While it is true that long distance passenger rail service is now the purview of Amtrak, BNSF still moves over 27 million passengers a year in regional passenger rail service that includes Chicago, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Chicago alone has more than 25 million passengers annually served by 106 BNSF trains.
BNSF’s role in each region is different. For example, in Minneapolis, BNSF provides the locomotives, and the Metropolitan Council, the regional governmental agency, owns the rolling stock and provides train crews.
In Chicago, BNSF operates the trains and leases the equipment under a purchase of service agreement to METRA, the commuter rail division of the Regional Transportation Authority of the Chicago metropolitan area.
In Seattle, Sounder commuter rail is operated by BNSF on behalf of Sound Transit.
In all these cities, commuter rail helps reduce congestion on local highways. A single bi-level commuter rail car can carry as many passengers as 120 automobiles, and a train produces less emissions than an equivalent number of automobiles.
Ensuring a Profitable Business Model
What all the commuter lines have in common is they are all profitable for BNSF. Commuter rail is still just a small part of BNSF’s overall business, but BNSF has laid out a list of Commuter Rail Principles that keep it profitably in the commuter rail business:
• Any commuter operation cannot degrade BNSF’s freight service, or negatively affect BNSF’s freight customers or BNSF’s ability to provide them with service.
• BNSF must be compensated for any and all costs incurred in providing commuter service and must make a reasonable return for providing the service.
• Capital investments necessary for commuter service are the responsibility of the public, including investments for future capacity.
• BNSF will not incur any liability for commuter operations that it would not have but for those operations. These operations are provided by BNSF primarily as a public service.
• Studies of how commuter service might be provided must take into account not only the current freight traffic levels, but also projected freight traffic growth.
•Investments made for commuter projects must not result in BNSF incurring a higher tax burden.
• BNSF must retain operating control of rail facilities used for commuter service. All dispatching, maintenance and construction must be done under the control of BNSF.
• Studies must reflect BNSF’s actual operating conditions and cost structures.
• BNSF will limit commuter operations to the commuter schedules initially agreed upon. Future expansions will have to undergo the same analysis and provide any required capital improvements.
•Improvements must include grade-crossing protection and intertrack fencing as required to minimize the risk of accidents.
Commuter rail is not BNSF’s only connection to passenger service. In addition to the passenger service provided directly by BNSF, some 64 Amtrak trains operate daily on over 6,500 miles of BNSF host track.
© 2015 David Mazor
Disclosure: David Mazor is a freelance writer focusing on Berkshire Hathaway. The author is long in Berkshire Hathaway, and this article is not a recommendation on whether to buy or sell the stock. The information contained in this article should not be construed as personalized or individualized investment advice. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.