Winter rail service uncertain

FARGO, N.D. -- Regional farm group officials welcome more detailed railroad reporting that shows dwell times for grain cars versus oil and other industries, but say it's too soon to know whether that will translate into adequate service this winter.

FARGO, N.D. -- Regional farm group officials welcome more detailed railroad reporting that shows dwell times for grain cars versus oil and other industries, but say it's too soon to know whether that will translate into adequate service this winter.

In the latest mandatory report to the Surface Transportation Board, dated Oct. 29, BNSF Railway had 3,509 cars in North Dakota late an average of 14 days; Montana had 649 cars an average of 13 days; Minnesota had 283 late cars an average of 9.8 days late; and South Dakota had 724 cars an average of 10.3 days late.

BNSF's lawyer Jill K. Mulligan, in writing the report, noted the company is trying to keep the numbers requested consistent with internal reporting needs, and cautioned the STB to avoid "relying on these reports to draw conclusions" but instead to use them to distill trends over time.

In the latest podcast on Oct. 24, John Miller, BNSF agricultural products group vice president, said the company is bringing more soybeans to export markets and is "confident we can provide the level of service our customers require during this critical harvest period."

Grain fleet bigger


In the BNSF report, Mulligan noted the grain fleet is larger than the crude oil fleet, and -- more importantly -- BNSF's grain fleet has about half of the cars deployed in shuttle or unit train service, and the rest in the single-car service. BNSF reported it had 615 loaded grain cars that had not been moved in a five-day period, compared with 141 loaded crude oil cars, 60 loaded ethanol cars, and 279 loaded coal cars.

A more meaningful figure would be the average train speed for the same period, Mulligan said. The system average grain train speed was 19.6 miles per hour, while the oil unit trains were 18.8 mph; coal, 17.7 mph and ethanol, 20.5 mph. Average dwell time at the point of origin was 16.6 hours.

Despite predictions the industry would be catching up, grain shuttle turns to the Pacific Northwest have been short of the 2.5 per month in the plan.

CP: Speed vs. dwell

Meanwhile, Charles W. Webster, senior counsel for Canadian Pacific-US, offered little commentary but said grain unit train speeds were running 19.1 mph, compared with 20.5 mph for crude oil, 21 mph for ethanol and 20.3 mph for coal. Intermodal shipping and automotive shipping were both more than 23 mph.

CP's weekly average dwell time was 25.6 hours for grain, 15.7 hours for ethanol, 14.6 hours for crude oil, and 9.2 hours for coal.

CP reported 85 loaded grain cars in the system that had not moved in more than five days. No ethanol cars had waited that long, while seven crude oil cars, and 85 coal cars had.

CP had 2,993 grain cars late throughout the system. North Dakota accounted for 84 percent of them, with 2,529 car orders late an average of 15 days. That was down from 3,724 days late the previous week, an average of 11 days. In Minnesota, CP had 304 cars an average of nearly six days late, down from 339 cars the previous week. Montana had 150 cars 4.7 days late, down from 930 cars late the previous week. South Dakota had zero, down from 427 days the previous week.


Reaction mixed

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers, which represents wheat and barley farmers, says the two initial reports from the railroads to the STB are interesting, but the industry will need to study more of them so they can have enough data to see patterns.

Wogsland says lower commodity markets, as well as grain quality issues in some areas, have slowed selling.

Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Feed and Grain Association, says he likes the transparency, but the numbers unfortunately don't show the improvement the railroads had projected.

The late car numbers have gotten better in part because of a delayed harvest and lack-luster prices that have slowed farmer selling.

Zelenka says a lot of the grain being harvested so far has been put in on-farm storage rather than hauled to elevators. He says Minnesota has 700 million bushels of commercial storage and 2.4 billion bushels of on-farm storage.

Canadian mandates

In Canada, the federal government expects to lift the threat of fines for the country's two largest railroads in shipping certain amounts of grain.


Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had asked the Canadian government to remove the fines or the U.S. government might have to take some commensurate action.

Gerry Ritz, Canada's Minister of Agriculture, says the government will allow the requirements to expire at the end of November. The railroads move about 1 million metric tons per week between the Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

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