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Leaders not seeing enough progress with grain car delay

September 12, 2014

By BRYCE MARTIN | Pioneer Editor |

Railway cars sit in front of Bowman Grain on Aug. 26. The statewide backlog of grain cars is hurting local farmers, according to the state. PHOTO BY BRYCE MARTIN | PIONEER

Railway cars sit in front of Bowman Grain on Aug. 26. The statewide backlog of grain cars is hurting local farmers, according to the state. PHOTO BY BRYCE MARTIN | PIONEER

Progress is being made following the massive back log that faced grain cars this summer across the state, but state leaders aren’t certain it’s happening fast enough and it’s possible to affect many local farmers during the current harvest.

N.D. Congressman Kevin Cramer addressed the Surface Transportation Board (STB) during a Sept. 4 public hearing in Fargo regarding delayed grain shipments. The hearing was held to provide concerned individuals with an opportunity to report on service problems they experience and to discuss options for improving service.

“While progress is being made against the backlog, I remain concerned about the ability of the rail system to handle another large harvest which is in full swing,” Cramer said at the hearing.

Loading more cars with grain in North Dakota will only solve part of the problem, according to Cramer. Congestion continues to exist at vital hubs in Minneapolis-St. Paul and in Chicago.

North Dakota Public Service (PSC) Commissioners Julie Fedorchak and Randy Christmann also testified at the hearing, calling on the STB to require the railroads to made detailed service plans that outline service improvements for this fall and for the STB to establish a temporary field office in North Dakota this fall to provide stronger oversight over service issues.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring was also present at the meeting. Goehring told the board that farmers, processors and commodity shippers want to know that the chronic cycle of railcar shortages and rail delays can be broken.

“I’m not telling railroads how to run their businesses,” Goehring said. “I’m telling them they have businesses here in North Dakota that they need to serve.”

He said the situation is bad now, but could become desperate in coming months.

The figures from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway released Sept. 8 show a total of 936 past due cars in North Dakota, averaging eight days late, compared to last week’s report that indicated 1,016 past due cars were averaging 10 days late.

The Canadian Pacific Railway report showed a total of 5,866 open requests in the state, with an average age of 12.54 weeks. The previous report showed 7,535 open requests with an average age of 13.14 weeks.

“The attendance at last week’s STB hearing illustrates the seriousness of these delays,” Cramer said in a statement. “It is encouraging to see continued progress from BNSF, while the reduction in open requests reported by CP appears to be primarily the result of orders being canceled, rather than fulfilled.”

In June, the two companies were ordered by the STB to report their plans for resolving the backlog of grain car orders and began issuing weekly status reports until the problem is resolved.

Last month, Scranton Equity General Manager Doug Archer publicly lent support to the construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would run straight through the southwest edge of Bowman County.

Archer called the pipeline a real solution to any future problems in rail transport of grain.

A hearing of the U.S. Energy and Oversight Subcommittees was held Wednesday in Washington, D.C., which, according to the hearing’s charter, would discuss some of the rail problems facing grain transport.

North Dakota crude oil production surpassed a million barrels of oil per day in April. According to the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2014, United States crude oil production will peak over the next decade and currently satisfies approximately 66 percent of its demand for crude oil from North American resources.

That presents further potential problems for grain car backlogs if the problem isn’t mitigated.

Due to increased production, insufficient pipeline capacity and challenges associated with siting new pipelines, however, a substantial amount of the petroleum produced in the Bakken region is shipped by rail, as cited in the charter.

Also in light of recent derailments, including accidents in Quebec and Casselton, Bakken petroleum shipped by rail has drawn increased scrutiny.