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Rail service complaints slow

FARGO, N.D. -- Slower grain sales because of slack prices has reduced complaints about slow commodity rail shipments, but the railroads are reporting persistent backlogs, and container shipments of agricultural and other products to key Pacific N...

FARGO, N.D. -- Slower grain sales because of slack prices has reduced complaints about slow commodity rail shipments, but the railroads are reporting persistent backlogs, and container shipments of agricultural and other products to key Pacific Northwest ports are worse than ever, officials say.

In weekly voluntary podcast reports, BNSF Railway has reported "dramatic" improvement in ag velocity -- more than 5.5 percent on Dec. 12 over the previous week and 10 percent over the previous 28 days. North Dakota accounted for half of the overdue cars system-wide.

In the latest report to the Surface Transportation Board, BNSF railway reported 4,133 "outstanding cars," or those that were technically late as of Dec. 13. That was 14 percent more than the previous week and the worst number in the past 10 weeks. The cars were late an average of 15.5 days, which was 5 percent higher or about a day longer than average for the period.

BNSF's dwell time -- when cars are standing loaded before moving -- is 9.2 hours for ethanol, 8.7 hours for grain and 6.6 hours for crude oil. The railroad held 98 trains for more than six hours just short of their destination. It reported 688 loaded grain cars in the system hadn't moved for more than five days, and another 2,579 hadn't moved for two to five days.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Pacific Railway showed 1,886 cars late, an average of 11 percent higher than the previous week, but 12 percent better than the 10-week average. The cars were an average of 26.6 days late, down slightly from the previous week and down from the 10-week average of 22.5 days late.

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CP's average dwell time at origin was 24.3 hours for grain, 15.2 hours for crude oil and 41 hours for ethanol.

"The Pacific Northwest corridor continues to improve, both offline and online," says Robert Johnson, senior vice president of operations, in the written report. "The corridor is fluid. Car cycle times in eastern markets have slowed, however."

He says the railroad had experienced slower returns of empty cars from the east and performance with the Rapid City, Pierre and Eastern railroad, based in Rapid City, S.D., was strong, as the company filled 300 of 314 car loading requests.

Complaints taper off

Stu Letcher, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, based in Fargo, says grain elevator operator complaints about shuttle-length grain shipping have tapered off.

"There's a lot of grain out in the bins on the farms, (with farmers) probably waiting to see if prices are going to take off," Letcher says. There is some concern that with lower commodity prices, some farmers might wish to market grain after Jan. 1, to make loan payments.

"If things take off in the depths of the winter, and everything wants to move at once, you can get into a backlog," Letcher says.

Bob Zelenka, executive director for the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, says complaints about the railroads have been "fairly quiet."

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"Unit train loaders have been getting pretty good service and less-than-shuttle are experiencing delays -- but it's been two to three weeks rather than four to eight weeks."

Commodity prices are encouraging farmers keep grain on the farm or in storage. Zelenka says one of the issues is that elevators that bought freight for January and February might not be able to use it and might have to sell it.

Meanwhile, intermodal shipments to the Pacific Northwest are slow because of ongoing labor issues.

"If you slow down anything in this tight system, it backs up and affects everything," Zelenka says.

Peter Friedman, executive director of the Agricultural Transportation Coalition, says port delays in the Pacific Northwest are getting worse.

"The injury to agriculture -- to (food-grade) soybeans and others -- is almost unfathomable, and some will not recover from this."

Related Topics: CROPS
Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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