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Published September 04, 2014, 09:16 AM

Dalrymple quotes Wilton (N.D.) elevator letter at STB hearing today in Fargo

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board is making history in North Dakota today, holding its first field hearing there, and packing in a crowd of testifiers and onlookers concerned about whether railroads can make the trains run on time.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — The U.S. Surface Transportation Board is making history in North Dakota today, holding its first field hearing there, and packing in a crowd of testifiers and onlookers concerned about whether railroads can make the trains run on time.

STB Chairman Daniel R. Elliott II, a former transportation union lawyer, started the session by saying problems in the railroad in some cases have gotten worse since an April 10 hearing involving fertilizer shipping in Washington. He said he is looking for solutions to allow the shipping of the 2014 crop, even as the agricultural industry ships the 2013 crop.

The three-person STB also includes Deb Miller, a former secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation, which often vies for No. 1 wheat producer with North Dakota. She said the shared network appears to have insufficient capacity for all of its needs, and shippers have a “lack of transparency” and need more information to make decisions. She said it is important to do more good than harm.

STB member Ann D. Begeman is a native South Dakotan and graduate of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, who worked as a congressional staffer on the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act.

The STB has scheduled a long list of participants for today’s hearing, with a show-and-tell by railroads and an expected litany of concerns and warnings.

North Dakota’s Gov. Jack Dalrymple began the hearing by quoting a recent letter from the Wilton (N.D.) Farmers Union Elevator Co. about an order made in January for April 8 placement, which is expected at the end of August. Dalrymple said the hearing is “about the individual elevators and farmers out there who have no place to go, no recourse, no power over the situation, except for you.” He said the impact of late shipments has been in the “hundreds of millions of dollars” for North Dakota farmers, and the damage is continuing. He noted that the North Dakota State Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks shut down 25 times this year because of delays in rail shipments.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has instituted plans to invest in and improve its service, but Canadian Pacific Railway has not provided sufficient information.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., also criticized CP for lack of transparency and said “bad news” is better than insufficient news. He said he is concerned about impacts of fines imposed on CP by Canada for late cars.

Cramer cautioned the STB of “over-reliance on emergency powers,” however, saying BNSF and CP should work on the problems without added government regulation.

Nine panels are scheduled today, with four hours of testimony alone — not including questions from STB members, breaks, transition time, or the “as needed” appearances by the hosting congressional delegation and governor. Morning panels include state officials and statewide candidates, coal, grain elevator, passenger and labor union officials, as well as the railroads themselves.

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