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Published March 03, 2014, 09:46 AM

BNSF boosts shuttles

Grain elevators continue to struggle with slow rail service, but large shuttle train shipments sped up last week, according to a weekly Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Inc. report.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Grain elevators continue to struggle with slow rail service, but large shuttle train shipments sped up last week, according to a weekly Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Inc. report.

John Miller, vice president for BNSF Railway’s agricultural group, in a weekly podcast on Feb. 27 said the company continues to “reset the network balance” of railroad cars and locomotives to manage through weather-related issues.

Miller says customers were notified Feb. 20 that a predicted return to cold temperatures would hamper equipment velocities, particularly in the north. He says there are also problems with throughput in the Chicago network caused by previous weather events and heavy volume. He says the company is shifting some traffic through Memphis and St. Louis, and that wet conditions in the Pacific Northwest have hampered unloading there at some facilities.

Miller says U.S. past-due grain car shipments last week increased to 11,698 throughout its system — up 632 cars from the previous week. The U.S. average past-due car count increased to 17.9 days, up from 15.4 the previous week. A past-due shipment is every single car that is at least four days past the “want date” requested by the elevator or shipper.

Past-due shipments in North Dakota increased to 5,512 — up by 451 cars from the previous week. The average North Dakota delay is 18.6 days per car, which increased from 17 days late the previous week.

Montana past-dues increased to 2,434 — up 15 cars from the week before. Montana past-dues were an average of 18.8 days late, a slight improvement from 19 days late reported the previous week.

BNSF reported 1,204 average past-dues in South Dakota, down 213 cars from the previous week, with an average of 18.6 days late, up from 16.4 days late the previous week. In Minnesota, there were 1,349 past-due cars, up 124 cars from the prevoius week with 18.8 average days late, compared with 14.3 the previous week.

Shuttle train boost

Shuttle trains showed some improvements, which is increasingly important for commodities headed to the Pacific Northwest.

System-wide, BNSF shuttle trips were able to turn around 2.2 times per month, a slightly faster turnaround than the two reported the previous week. Grain industry officials typically expect the shuttles to turn around about three times a month.

Steve Strege, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, says he hasn’t heard any reports of significant relief, but he hears the horror stories. The organization has encouraged members to report conditions to the federal Surface Transportation Board.

Delane Thom, regional manager for Southwest Grain near Gladstone, N.D., says the situation is “horrible and it’s stayed that way.” He says his company has been in direct contact with BNSF.

Road restrictions

The cold weather has meant farmers are temporarily slower in delivering grain to elevators, Thom says. But with elevators sitting full, farmers couldn’t deliver if they wanted to on “to-arrive” contracted grain, where a price is established and elevators are waiting for space. Thom says one danger is that farmers won’t be able to off-load grain until later in the spring, when they’ll be stopped by truck weight restrictions on thawing road beds.

“In our area, with the oil impact on roads, the load restrictions are pretty stringent,” Thom says. “It makes it noneconomical for the farmer to move those bushels under load restrictions.” Grain deliveries in the spring conflict with planting season.

Thom expects a time crunch, with planting starting in just over a month. “You really have only four and a half months of time to deliver and we’ve got a lot of grain that needs to move,” Thom says.

“We’re hoping there’s an improvement once the weather gets better,” he says.

Canadian troubles

Thom says Canadian grain shipping problems seem worse. “Our grain marketing division is getting calls from actual producers in Canada, looking for an outlet,” he says.

The Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. are reporting overdue orders of 55,000 grain cars, according to Keystone Agricultural Producers President Doug Chorney. He says 50 vessels are waiting off the West Coast for Canadian grain, costing $25 million in demurrage. One ship couldn’t wait any longer and left.

CN spokesman Mark Hallman says the company hopes to provide 4,000 grain cars more per week when extreme cold abates, and up to 5,500 cars by early April. CP Spokesman Ed Greenberg says the company will add thousands of cars per week to transport grain to ports, an effort that will last until at least December.

Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz say he’s considering regulations to increase the flow of grain to ports. Chorney agrees with that and says a system of rewards and punishments needs to be instituted because railroads can cut back crews too far to improve their bottom line.

Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, based in Regina, tells Agweek he fears that delayed marketing will cause some farmers to become delinquent on last year’s input loans and will result in interest penalties. Alluding to oil cars, Hall says “a lot of black tankers” seem to be moving on the rails, while farmers can’t deliver grains. Hall, who farms near Wynyard, Saskatchewan, says he thinks part of the Canadian shortage is from Canadian railroads leasing equipment to meet U.S. needs.

“We’re happy for you that that’s happening, but — pardon my French — it’s pissing us off,” he says.

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