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Published June 30, 2014, 09:38 AM

BNSF says it’s ‘committed to becoming current’

BNSF Railway Co., in a formal response to a Surface Transportation Board order, says it’s committed to solving grain shipment delays and is working to do so.

By: Mikkel Pates and Jonathan Knutson , Agweek

BNSF Railway Co., in a formal response to a Surface Transportation Board order, says it’s committed to solving grain shipment delays and is working to do so.

In its June 27 report to the STB, the railroad says it’s “very focused on the needs of our agricultural customers and remains committed to becoming current with existing orders from last year’s harvest.”

The railroad says it’s taken a number of steps, including:

• Aggressive coordination between train operations and maintenance activity to maximize the throughput of traffic.

• Ensuring equipment and manpower are located where they can best support increased velocity and volumes and remedy critical service situations.

• Moving grain hoppers that have been in shuttle service for which certificate commitments have expired into nonshuttle service.

• Hiring and training 405 new employees this year to work in its northern tier.

• Adding more than 200 locomotives to the network since the beginning of 2014.

• Assigning field supervisors from across the system to key locations to assist in streamlining communication, coordinating train flows and managing critical resources.

• Undertaking several innovative employee programs to further increase crew availability.

BNSF also says its capital plan includes bringing online 500 new locomotives and 5,000 cars, spending more than $3.2 billion, much of it the northern U.S. where grain traffic is greatest.

The June 27 report was in response to a June 20 STB ruling, which gave a one-week notice to BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway to report their plans to timely resolve backlogged grain car orders.

The CP report was not available when this issue of Agweek was finalized.

Ed Greenberg, a CP spokesman, on June 24 in an email response to Agweek said his railroad “continues to closely look through the STB order as it reviews its grain plan and will be responding directly to the agency.”

Agriculture customers have complained in the past several months about increased delays that have cost farmers money. Railroads have blamed the delays on unfavorable weather and bottlenecks elsewhere in the country, as well as increased railroad demands from the coal and oil shipments in the region.

The STB says the railways’ plans must spell out how they will “timely resolve their backlogs of grain car orders, as well as weekly status reports pertaining to grain car service.” The order says it is designed to “focus each railroad’s attention” on the problem for grain shippers, which the agency describes as “severe.”

Other short-line railroads are handling grain, but the order only includes the two Class I railroads through which regional railroad shippers deliver grain.

The BNSF report, in its “past dues” sections, lists 8,462 cars and 28.6 average days systemwide, 4,942 cars and 32 average days in North Dakota, 1,598 cars and 31 average days in Montana, 887 cars and 13.9 average days in Minnesota and 237 cars and 9.2 average days in Minnesota.

The current past dues of 8,462 cars is down 11.2 percent from 9,527 the previous week, according to the report.

BNSF currently has an active grain fleet of 24,829 cars, with 47 percent under load, with an active empty fleet of 13,152 cars, the report says.

Railroads respond

Amy Casas, BNSF spokeswoman, says the STB does not direct BNSF to “preference one shipper group over other thereby redirecting resources from our other customers at a time when we continue to gain momentum to improving service.”

She acknowledges BNSF is “disappointed we have not met our customers’ expectations” but has made progress toward “substantially satisfying outstanding orders and we will be prepared for this fall’s harvest.”

Casas says the company has moved more grain and grain products in 2014 than in the same period in 2013. BNSF has moved 9 percent more ethanol than it did in the same period last year, and has cut agricultural past-due cars by one-third — 5,000 cars — since May 20.

The STB in April required six weeks of reporting on fertilizer shipments. That period has ended. BNSF has publicly issued podcasts from John Miller, vice president for agriculture, on both fertilizer and grain delays. CP says it exceeded its fertilizer shipping goals but did not provide the kind of public updates that BNSF does. Meanwhile, the Canadian government has instituted minimum weekly grain shipments for railroads and instituted fines.