The profits-over-people practices of the largest freight railroads in the United States are at the center of a lawsuit recently filed in federal court in Washington. The former owners of Cold Train, a Quincy, WA-based shipper whose business model demanded rapid transport of fresh produce to Chicago, are seeking more than $40 million in damages from BNSF. According to the plaintiff's, the Class I railroad that dominates rail traffic across the Northern Plains states prioritized shipments of coal and oil at the expense of other forms of cargo. Increasingly unable to meets its on-time delivery guarantees because of limits on traffic, transit times and scheduling, the plaintiffs claim they were compelled to shut down Cold Train and cancel a nearly completed sale of their company to another shipper.
BNSF has denied deliberately taking any actions that disadvantaged Cold Train, or any other company involved in moving freight that was not coal or oil. A statement from the railroad quoted by the Columbia Basin Herald points to weather emergencies, track maintenance issues and an overall spike in service demands. BNSF also said, "[A]ny suggestion that BNSF would intentionally seek to cause harm to any customer runs completely contrary to how BNSF conducts business. BNSF is dedicated to customer satisfaction and growing our network to meet customer demand."
To this, the executives from Cold Train replied that BNSF failed to share all available information about its purported need to force schedule changes upon its business customers. They also noted that intermodal traffic -- shipping containers rather than coal hoppers or oil tank cars -- suffered at the expense of freight that returned more profit to the railroad.
A court will have to weigh both sides in this dispute. As a Carolina and Virginia attorney who has specialized in helping railroad employees hurt on the job as a result of their companies' negligence and disregard, however, I know that the claims made by BNSF deserve particular scrutiny. Rail corporations have a poor history of considering anything beyond increasing their bottom lines. Class I railroads persisted in using asbestos long after the deadly risks of doing so became apparent. They cite costs while fighting requirements for safety upgrades like fire-resistant rail cars and remote braking systems. From Amtrak and CSX to Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, the railroads regularly ignore environmental concerns, employees' rights and crossing security when doing so puts extra money in their pockets.
In short, while I cannot know that BNSF’s calculations put this one particular shipper out of business, I recognize that the railroad would certainly not be above freezing out an organization like Cold Train if it could warm up to fossil fuel companies.