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Published March 17, 2014, 09:58 AM

Burlington Northern Santa Fe: Rail delays still high in north

Agricultural shippers in the region are still reporting delays, as railroads have continued to feel the effects of cold weather.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Agricultural shippers in the region are still reporting delays, as railroads have continued to feel the effects of cold weather.

In a March 14 weekly podcast update, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway vice president John Miller reported a slightly worsening late cars report from the March 6 podcast, and no updated information on shuttle trains, except that velocity of ag train miles per day had increased 14 percent.

“Ag trains holding from last Friday to this morning are down 32 percent,” Miller said in his March 14 report.

But he says the company has “a long way to go toward achieving stronger, more consistent velocity metrics.”

Specifically, he noted:

•North Dakota showed 7,305 late cars, up 9 percent from the March 6 report. The average for late days was 22.4, up from 20.8 and 18.6 days the previous two weeks, respectively.

•South Dakota reported 1,284 late cars, down 8 percent from March 6. Average days increased to 21.8, compared with 19 days and 18.6 days in the previous two weeks.

•Montana had 3,176 late cars, up 9 percent from March 6. Average days late was 23.2, up from 20.5 days and 18.8 in the two previous weeks.

•Minnesota reported 1,309 late cars, down 5 percent from the previous week. The cars averaged 23 days late, compared with 20.5 days and 18.8 days in the previous two weeks.

The March 14 report (recently changed from Thursday to Friday weekly release dates) did not indicate a new figure for shuttle service.

Similarly, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., released a March 12 report from BNSF that showed 200 sugar cars had been spotted in North Dakota during the week ending March 8, a decline of about 70 cars from the previous week. The dwell time in the north region increased by 2 percent from the previous week, and train speed declined 1.9 percent.

In his March 6 report, Miller said the company’s 110-car shuttle trains were reporting an average of 2.2 cycles per month nationwide. Turns to the Pacific Northwest destinations were reported at two per month per shuttle.

No grain shipment improvement

Delane Thom, regional manager for Southwest Grain, a division of CHS Inc. in Taylor, N.D., says he’s seen no improvement on grain shipments. The normal expectation is that a shuttle train will be able to make three trips a month to the Pacific Northwest, Thom says. When advised of the two turns to those ports Thom says, “We haven’t experienced anything quite that good.”

Thom says he’s seen reports from the congressional delegation, indicating improvement by June. “Things have to happen fast to make that happen,” he says.

He says road trucking restrictions were implemented March 12 in his part of the state.

“That affects us on the grain we transfer from substation locations into our main terminals,” he says. The restrictions require farmers to quit shipping or ship partial loads, making the transportation uneconomical.

“As we sit on Friday, March 14, all of our terminals are sitting full, and have been that way for several days,” Thom says. “The terminal in New Salem — we haven’t dumped a truck all this week.”

Thom says he’s encouraged by the railroad’s recent discussions of investments in the rail system, but he says he doesn’t see how increasing maintenance and capital expenditures — however needed — can help the velocity matter.

“I don’t see any changes in the operating plan that will help the ag sector at this point,” Thom says.

“While oil and coal do not have expiration dates, grain which can’t be delivered can rot in a bin over time,” Cramer says. “With every passing day, these stranded assets lose value and our producers risk losing market share in key export countries and domestic markets, as well. I appreciate the efforts BNSF says it is making, but I am not hearing of any relief from North Dakota farmers who are depending on immediate improvements.”

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