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BNSF moving 55 jobs to Laurel from Forsyth, Glendive

Burlington Northern Santa Fe is relocating 55 workers to Laurel this month from Glendive and Forsyth and planning other worker furloughs, rail officials said Wednesday.

The move is an effort to consolidate operations to Laurel, the region’s largest rail yard, and reduce costs in response to a downturn in freight demands, BNSF officials said.

The bulk of the shift, 45 workers, will come from Forsyth, while the remaining 10 workers will come from Glendive. Residents in both communities say they will feel the loss.

“Any jobs that move out of Glendive, it’s devastating to the community, mainly because we’re such a small community. … One, we’re losing friends and family. Two, we’re losing kids out of our school system. And three, it hurts our economy,” Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said Wednesday.

In the coming months, BNSF also plans to curtail hiring and furlough workers until demand increases, officials said. Rail officials did not release the number of furloughs, where they will occur or when.

“We regret any negative local impacts caused by these changes, but they are necessary for the service to our customers and will improve the ability of BNSF to invest and grow in Montana,” BNSF spokesman Matt Jones said in a written statement.

The railroad is adding runs from Laurel to Glendive and Sheridan, Wyo., as part of the changes, Jones said.

The relocation has been rumored for months. Forsyth business leaders told The Gazette in February they worried the loss of well-paying jobs would hurt service businesses and home sales in the area.

Related: BNSF drops plan to buy tank cars on customer concerns

Furloughs are not uncommon for BNSF when freight demand falls, and the railroad is feeling pain from the struggles of its largest customers.

Falling oil prices have cut rail shipments from the Bakken fields in North Dakota. Also, low natural gas prices have cut into demand for coal, which is transported primarily by rail from the mines in the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana.

In the past three years, BNSF has invested $450 million in Montana to improve rail capacity and ease congestion, which has contributed to the relocations, according to Jones.

BNSF has about 100 employees in Billings and Laurel, which includes 30 at a Laurel manufacturing plant that supplies railroad track to other company sites. The transfer would bump total employment in Yellowstone County to about 155, according to BNSF.

“It’s always nice to get more people in to do more shopping and buying property. I was kind of torn when I read it, wondering how many would locate in Billings and drive back and forth. … I would hope the majority of them would reside in Laurel and buy property,” Laurel Mayor Mark Mace said Wednesday.

Jones said he did not immediately have job totals available for Forsyth or Glendive. He added that the company met with employee unions to structure the transition and accepted volunteers to relocate. Incentive bonuses were also given to employees who relocated, he said.

BNSF owns 32,500 miles of track in 28 states and three Canadian provinces. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company is a subsidiary of billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Jimison, the Glendive mayor, said his city has long been a railroad town, and he understands that business at BNSF will fluctuate. Glendive will adjust, he said.

“The railroad will do what it wants to do. Sometimes the benefit of the company does not match the benefit of the community,” Jimison said.

This article was written by ERIK OLSON from Billings Gazette, Mont. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.