Sunday, December 27, 2009

Monopoly in Montana?

Here's the rare story that undeniably depicts an intersection between law and rural livelihoods. (Like yesterday's post, it also shows how critical a transportation link can be to a rural community's survival). Kirk Johnson reports in today's New York Times under the headline, "Tough Times Test the Bond between a Town and its Railroad." The dateline is Denton, Montana, population 301, and the story is about the struggle for survival of the tiny Central Montana Railroad. Central's market niche is hauling grain from Denton and environs to the Burlington Northern line, about 40 miles away. Here's an excerpt summarizing recent events:

Last month, Burlington Northern shut off payments to the Central that had been locked in for years by contract ... prompting a lawsuit by the State of Montana on Central’s behalf. Burlington officials said the payments had inflated shipping costs for local farmers.
Burlington is also offering discounts to farmers who truck their wheat directly to its grain elevator. Burlington says it is simply helping these farmers lower shipping costs so that they can better compete in a difficult global market.

Montana's Attorney General has sued Burlington Northern, which controls about 95% of everything that moves by rail in the state. He says he is concerned about the state being even more captive to Burlington Northern than it already is.

At stake for Denton is population loss, a phenomenon driven as much by consolidation of farms as it may ultimately be by the outcome of this railroad struggle.

Read the rest of the story here, which also has an interesting technology angle: competing use of text messaging to farmers.

Denton is in Fergus County, population 11,893,

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