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Published June 09, 2014, 09:57 AM

Shuttle turns slower; single ag cars later, fewer

FARGO, N.D. — Agricultural shipment gains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway continued to improve for agricultural customers through the end of May, but progress is spotty.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Agricultural shipment gains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway continued to improve for agricultural customers through the end of May, but progress is spotty.

In its weekly podcast report on May 30, BNSF reported system-wide cycle turnaround times per month had declined to 2.3 — the poorest since April 24 and 7 percent less than the average of the previous four weeks. Turns to the Pacific Northwest were 2.3, which is also 7 percent slower than the previous four weeks and less than the railroad’s stated average goal of 2.5 turns per month.

System-wide, there were 13,050 agricultural single cars late — which means fewer orders than the unit trains and shuttles, which are more than 100 cars. The railroad had 1,017 fewer late single cars — 7 percent better — than the previous month. But the average overdue wait per car was 28.6 days, longer than any so far in the 16 reports.

State-by-state figures showed mixed results.

North Dakota had 6,703 agricultural late cars — 6 percent less than the previous four-week average. But the days late per car were up 14 percent at 30.9 days — the longest waits yet in the 16 weeks of reporting.

In Minnesota, the 1,505 late cars for agriculture were down nearly 18 percent from the previous four-week average. The days late were just shy of the four-week average at 20.9.

Montana had 2,833 late agricultural cars — 10 percent less than the four-week average, but average days late were about 1.4 percent less than the previous four-week average.

South Dakota had 369 late agricultural cars, a 27 percent improvement from the average of erratic weekly reports in the previous month. The average days late per car was 29.5, compared with the average of 29.9 cars late the previous four weeks.

Sub-grade failures

The railroad was having sub-grade failures in the Minot, N.D., area, according to John Miller, BNSF vice president for agriculture.

“These subgrade issues are the result of the extremely deep frost levels we experienced in the past winter that are now pushing moisture to the surface,” he says.

“The recent warm weather and substantial rainfall combined with the ground still being frozen (or in the process of thawing) several feet below the surface, are causing some unstable track conditions which have occurred in the Glasgow-Minot, Minot-Grand Forks, and the Minot-Fargo segments,” Miller says.

These service interruptions, coupled with the volume from the project through St. Paul, Minn., continue to stress the network across its northern tier.

“We are aggressively directing the needed resources to address these conditions,” Miller says. With the ongoing challenges for the mainline locations, the branches to Bottineau and Rolla, in North Dakota, were out of service at times.

More hiring

In a separate biweekly report to the Surface Transportation Board, Carl Ice, BNSF president and CEO, says the railroad continued to make progress “against our annual and quarterly goals for capital investment, locomotive and car acquisitions, and hiring, which we view as key to achieving and maintaining consistency to our service across our entire network.”

Ice says, “We are transporting large volumes of agricultural commodities” and have “committed to our customers that we will reduce the number of past-due cars and get current with existing orders. We expect to maintain this progress as we move grain hoppers being released as we finish out certificate commitments into the nonshuttle network in the next month.”

Fertilizer movement is largely completed for the season, says Amy Casas, a BNSF spokeswoman. BNSF exceeded its six-week fertilizer goals of 52 trainloads, “originating 57 trainloads and delivering 56 trainloads” to their ultimate destinations through May 28.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who has been monitoring the reports, notes the average number of days these cars are running late continues to increase.

“Since BNSF met its fertilizer delivery goal, I am hopeful their progress in reducing these delays will accelerate,” Cramer says.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway, tells Agweek that the ordered STB reporting on fertilizer shipments is over. He says he doesn’t know whether CP is offering any voluntary public reporting analogous to the BNSF’s, but that the railroad is in communications with its customers.

“CP continues to work directly with our customers to ensure we are responding to their shipping requirements as quickly as possible,” Greenberg says, adding Chicago and U.S. terminal performance remains consistent with a 3 percent weekly improvement and carload volume levels trend above three-year averages.

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