What do train whistles and Warren Buffett have in common?
If you answered old-fashioned charm, you’re wrong.
The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, calls the avuncular billionaire “the man behind the exploding trains.”
Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns Union Tank Car Company, North America’s largest leaser of tank cars. Berkshire also owns BNSF Railway Company, which moves many of those cars.
To understand what a big deal this is, take a look at the chart at right, from the Association of American Railroads.
Rail transport of crude oil has skyrocketed in the last four years. As North American oil production has outstripped pipeline capacity, trains have taken up the slack.
Because towns, villages and cities grew up along rail lines, these cars pass through heavily populated areas en route to refineries. Several communities in the U.S. and Canada have paid a steep price.
- In July, a runaway train devastated the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people.
- In December, a train derailed and exploded in Casselton, ND.
- Last month, another oil train derailed in Lynchburg, VA, causing a spill in the James River and forcing evacuation of the community.
As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow remarked on her show Friday, “There’s a reason people have started calling these things ‘bomb trains.’ And that’s because they keep blowing up.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation last week sent the White House a package of rules designed to increase rail safety, following Canada’s announcement of tighter regulations.
Deborah Hersman, the recently departed chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, called on the Obama administration to act as soon as possible, rather than getting bogged down in the typical cycle of lobbying, counter-legislation and rule rewrites.
“This issue needs to be acted on very quickly,” she told reporters. “There is a very high risk here that hasn’t been addressed.”
Buffett has spoken out in favor of improved rail safety. “We’re going to move a lot of crude in this country, and we have to learn how to do it very safely,” he told Reuters.
However, Berkshire’s rail interests have paid millions to shape the government response.
BNSF spent $5.2 million last year lobbying in Washington.
The Association of American Railroads, of which BNSF is a member, spent more than $6.5 million. Its lobbyists include former U.S. Reps. Max Sandlin and Vin Weber, and former Sens. John Breaux and Trent Lott.
The darker blue boxes in the interactive Muckety map above are lobby shops representing the trade group and BNSF.