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Published May 27, 2014, 09:47 AM

BNSF single cars still slow

FARGO, N.D. - Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is reporting some improvement on delays in agricultural shipments on unit trains and mixed results on single cars.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. - Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is reporting some improvement on delays in agricultural shipments on unit trains and mixed results on single cars.

“Ag traffic for the last five weeks is the highest we’ve seen since November 2013,” says John Miller, BNSF vice president for agricultural business. “I am also pleased to announce that we are in the last week of our fertilizer plan and have achieved over 100 percent of our goal in unit train shipments.”

Miller issued the company’s 15th weekly podcast update May 22 in response to Surface Transportation Board directives. Miller reported that average weekly units for agricultural shipments are 10 percent higher than the average during the first three months of the year.

Significantly, shuttle shipments to the Pacific Northwest ports increased to 2.6 turns per month — exceeding BNSF’s recently stated goal of 2.5 turns, but less than the 2.8 to three turns elevators had come to expect in recent years. The turns per month to the important markets for U.S. agricultural commodities to Asian markets had languished around two until mid-April, in part because of the cold and severe winter.

BNSF reported overall turns for shuttles at 2.5 per month systemwide, but up to 3.4 turns for the Gulf of Mexico ports — a destination that has seen good agricultural traffic since a low of 2.5 turns in late March.

Some fertilizer hub shed operators say they have been getting nitrogen in longer unit trains, but have not gotten their single-car shipments — orders of a few cars that bring in the products that are blended with the urea nitrogen.

Single cars lagging

Non-unit train cars late improved by 3.8 percent from the previous week, but are still 14,069 cars late systemwide, and the number of days late is an average of 27.9 days — the highest level reported in the 15 weeks so far of reporting.

North Dakota accounted for 6,839 of the late cars — about 47 percent of the total. That’s the fewest cars late since March 6. But the days late in the state hit an average of 28.4 days — the longest waits recorded in the 15 weeks.

“We’re going to see those start to come down meaningfully in June” as the railroad moves more shuttles into single-car service, says BNSF Executive Chairman Matt Rose.

Minnesota had 1,719 late cars, the fewest since April 17, but with an average of 21.5 days late, which is about what the state has seen since mid-April.

Montana late cars increased to 3,258, with a slightly improved 28.5 days late.

South Dakota late cars have improved in the past two weeks to 435, but the days late is 33.7 days, the longest shortfall in the 15-week reporting period.

Miller says branch line conditions remain a challenge in the north. The line from Rugby to Bottineau in North Dakota is now expected to return to service on May 27. The Church’s Ferry to Rolla line in North Dakota is expected back in service by May 30. A “major signal and track alignment project” in the St. Paul Subdivision will create a 14-hour outage May 26 and 27, and the company is working to have “traffic as current as possible between Chicago and Minneapolis” during the outage, Miller says.

Growth in crude-by-rail is an easy answer for BNSF’s recent service challenges, but “it’s not entirely correct,” Rose says. Shipments of agricultural products and building materials also have increased significantly, he says.

The railroad is investing a record $5 billion into its system in 2014, which follows a record $4 billion investment last year, he says. This year’s plan calls for adding 500 new locomotives, 5,000 new railcars, 5,000 new employees and laying hundreds of miles of new track.

CP progress

Ed Greenberg, spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway, says his railroad is current on fertilizer shipments relative to the STB order. Carload volume is trending above three-year averages for the fourth consecutive week and U.S. terminal performance is showing 3 percent week-over-week improvement. A report for the STB wasn’t available by Agweek press time.

CP moves fewer than 50 cars of fertilizer daily throughout its network and has an overall market share of about 10 percent, Greenberg says, so it is not a big player in that market.

Editor’s note: Mike Nowatzki of Forum News Service contributed to this report.

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