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Published March 31, 2014, 12:33 PM

BNSF weekly report puts spotlight on Grand Forks, N.D.

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway weekly report on late cars released March 28 alludes to “green shoots” of improvement, but contains results that fell further behind for the fourth week in a row for the four-state area. It also alludes to impending issues with the winter wheat harvest coming in June.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway weekly report on late cars released March 28 alludes to “green shoots” of improvement, but contains results that fell further behind for the fourth week in a row for the four-state area. It also alludes to impending issues with the winter wheat harvest coming in June.

John Miller, BNSF vice president for agriculture, says the group continues to see “gradual improvement across the system with grain loadings increasing week-over-week for the past two weeks.” He says flow to the Pacific Northwest was stronger, the result of “continued locomotive availability, along with little impact from either weather or other service interruptions.”

Specifically, Miller talked about experiencing “high volume of grain shipments in and around Grand Forks, N.D., that have been impacted by line capacity and crew rest challenges.”

Vance Taylor, manager of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks, tells Agweek transit times are “still slow, about the same as what they have been.” Taylor says the mill’s “K-Mill” — one of seven milling systems in the state-owned facility — is down until next week for a scheduled refurbishing, which is easing pressure on outgoing transit. He says the mill is seeing increased transit times.

Other critical areas that are “challenged for resources and line capacity” during the week were Sioux Falls, S.D., Aberdeen, S.D., Hettinger, N.D., and parts of Montana. Miller says those areas were affected by ongoing capital projects in Montana between Forsyth and Billings.

“As we know, winter wheat harvest is fast approaching,” Miller says, foreshadowing issues during the harvest in states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, which typically starts in June. “In past years when there was plenty of available freight, we have been able to strategically preposition covered harvest to meet harvest demand. Due to the car order backlog we are currently experiencing, this year, we will have limited availability to preposition cars.”

PNW shuttles slower

Despite Miller’s references to improved shipments, the shuttle shipments, which are 110- or 120-cars for grain, only improved to the Gulf of Mexico, rising to 2.8 turns per month, which is getting closer to the goal of three turns per month, Miller says. Meanwhile, turns to the Pacific Northwest declined to 1.9 per month, down from two the previous three weeks, and the overall turns remained at 2.1. Miller didn’t mention turns to California or West Texas.

Here are nonshuttle statistics for each of the four states, updated to March 29:

•North Dakota — 7,541 cars late, accounting for 46 percent of all late cars, nationwide for BNSF. That is up more than 2,000 cars (37 percent) from the Feb. 27 podcast — one month ago, when sub-zero temperatures were one of the chief reasons offered by the railroad. Those cars were an average of 22.8 days late, up 1.4 days from the previous week, and 4.2 days longer than the month-ago status.

•South Dakota — 1,372 cars late, still accounting for 8.5 percent of national BNSF late cars. That figure is now up 168 cars from a month ago, or 14 percent. During the week, the average number of late days shot up to 31.1, up 5.2 days from the previous week and 12.5 days, 67 percent, longer than a month ago.

•Montana — 3,468 cars late, accounting for 21 percent of all BNSF late cars nationwide. That’s up 146 cars from the previous week and up 1,034 cars, or 42 percent, from a month ago. Cars late in the state jumped to an average of 29.1 days during — up 4.1 days. That’s 10.3 days later than a month ago, during the coldest weather.

•Minnesota — 1,599 cars late, still accounting for 9 percent of the BNSF systemwide figures. The total is up 136 cars from a week earlier and up 250 cars or 19 percent from a month earlier.

Separately, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., on March 28 issued a report he’d received from BNSF, which shows conditions through a slightly different lens. The report showed figures as of March 21, which indicated past-due cars were 20 percent greater than “goal” and that the average past-due days were 5.4 percent greater than goal. It showed that 23.7 million tons of coal had been delivered, 14.6 percent more than goal.

Sugar report, reality

Cramer’s report also showed that the “sugar cars spotted” doubled from March 7 to the March 21 report.

David Berg, president and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Co., declined to dispute the report to Cramer, but says shipments are at the “low end of adequate.” He says American Crystal has resorted to putting some sugar into totes and on trucks to make up for shipping delays, but has yet to store it on flat warehouse storage, where it would require a “re-melt” process to be ready for consumers.

On the other hand, Cramer’s report showed “dwell” times in the north region declined by 10.8 percent and train speed picked up 1 percent during that week. BNSF reported adding 107 locomotives during the quarter-to-date, up eight from the previous period, or nearly the quarter goal.

Some Canadian Pacific Railway shippers in the region have complained that their service appears to be declining, and some have wondered whether that’s because BNSF has been leasing or acquiring CP locomotives, in repayment for earlier sharing arrangements.

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