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STB orders more extensive reporting from railroads

FARGO, N.D. -- Grain elevator and agriculture groups are cautiously optimistic that a more extensive reporting system for railroads, ordered Oct. 8 by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, will at least allow agricultural shippers to see whether...

FARGO, N.D. -- Grain elevator and agriculture groups are cautiously optimistic that a more extensive reporting system for railroads, ordered Oct. 8 by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, will at least allow agricultural shippers to see whether they're getting the same kind of service as oil, coal and other industries.

The STB, which regulates railroads, ordered all of the nation's Class I railroads to provide weekly data about shipping. That's more than the agricultural shipping reporting they had required of only BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway earlier this summer.

"The board agrees that there is a need for broader standardized performance data from the railroad industry as it continues to address existing service challenges," said the order, signed by the entire three-person STB. The U.S. rail system is an interconnected network and one carrier's service problems can affect the others.

The nation's Class I railroads include BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation Inc., Grand Trunk Corp. (including U.S. affiliates of Canadian National Railway), Kansas City Southern Railway Co., Norfolk Southern Combined Railroad Subsidiaries, Soo Line Corp. (including U.S. affiliates of CP Railway), and Union Pacific Railroad Co.

The order for data will be temporary, but doesn't say how long it is in place. It supersedes the earlier order involving just BNSF and CP, and ag reporting. The new report will be detailed, adding such things as train speed and will include many train types -- intermodal (containers), grain, coal, automotive, crude oil, ethanol and other categories. There will be reporting of total cars online for boxcars, covered hoppers, gondolas, intermodal, open hoppers and tank cars, among others.

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The new reports will include "average dwell time at origin for unit train shipments" for various categories, and the total of trains "held short of destination or scheduled interchange for longer than six hours" sorted by train type and industry.

Important step

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., says the decision is an "important step forward in improving railroad transparency, which will help our shippers and agriculture producers make informed decisions as they work to get products to market."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., says farmers and grain elevators have "lost out" for more than eight months because of the delays, and said the STB needs to take strong action to "make sure we can reduce this backlog so our nation's producers, processors and their families continue to thrive."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., says the decision is a "step in the right direction, but we need more" but didn't specify what.

Stuart Letcher, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, says he isn't surprised the STB called for more reporting. He says the reporting will perhaps show whether grain is being treated equitably among other shipping.

"This is kind of a starting point," he says, noting elevators appreciate reporting, but "we just want service."

Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Feed and Grain Association, the state's grain elevator organization based in Minneapolis, says he is encouraged that the STB required more reporting and transparency, as requested by a variety of ag-related officials who testified Sept. 4 in a Fargo, N.D., field hearing by the full STB board.

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Dwell time reports

Zelenka says it is important that all the interlocking railroads are involved, especially with choke points such as Chicago, which has been blamed for the delays.

He says "average dwell time at origin" in the new reports should help verify complaints that elevators often make. He says it is especially irritating for elevators to pay overtime to employees to hurry and load shuttle trains on weekends, only to have the trains sit for several days unmoved.

"I don't think it's going to be too much of a burden for the railroads to share all of this information," Zelenka says.

He says it will for the first time offer a window into whether grain shipments are getting the same consideration as oil and other shippers. The railroads say their oil customers are not getting preferential treatment and this report should help them demonstrate that, Zelenka says.

"They'll be able to substantiate what they've been saying," he says.

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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