WASHINGTON — U.S. rail operators must put investment ahead of profits to clear the way for grain, automotive and chemical shipments now clogging the tracks, lawmakers said at a congressional hearing Sept. 10 about the health of the rail grid.
Rail backups in the Midwest are particularly acute with farmers expected to harvest record-large corn and soybean crops in the next two months and move much of that grain to market.
“The railroad shipment delays that farmers and grain elevator operators in this country have faced are simply staggering,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said at the hearing. “North Dakotans deserve better than this new norm from some railroad companies of delay, unclear numbers, and uncertainty as to whether their hard-earned product will get to market, or if it will simply sit by the side of the road.”
Heitkamp specifically spoke to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the impact of agriculture shipment delays at North Dakota elevators. The delays, which have been going on since last winter, have had economic consequences for producers.
Heitkamp called on the committee to reauthorize and strengthen the power of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which oversees and investigates railway operations.
Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and John Thune, R-S.D., the ranking member on the committee, made the same points, discussing legislation that would give the STB more authority and force it to act.
Jerry Cope, the marketing manager for Dakota Mill and Grain in Rapid City, S.D.
, testified on behalf of the National Grain and Feed Association, and said elevator operators do not want direct government intervention with the railroads.
“But it is hoped that the stringent oversight of the agricultural rail service crisis will continue as the recovery in service hopefully continues and ultimately returns to more normal levels,” Cope said.
“In the long term, continued vigilance and the spotlight on this crucial issue will facilitate needed communication between the railroads and the state, where one did not exist before.”
The rail sector has promised to spend $26 billion this year to improve service, but Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was not placated.
He accused the rail industry of having undue influence with Washington regulators and lawmakers.
The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to consider legislation to grant several new authorities to the STB, which would allow it to initiate its own investigations as opposed to waiting for formal complaints to be filed. The bill would also increase the number of STB commissioners from three to five and would revise the body’s ability to rate cases and reviews.
BY THE NUMBERS
The number of shuttles running will be a record high in September, and BNSF Railway expects to set new records for October through December, said John Miller, vice president for agricultural shipping, in a weekly voluntary podcast report issued Sept. 11.
Shuttle trains companywide had 2.3 round-trip turns per month, and turns to the Pacific Northwest were 2.9 times per month.
BNSF’s smaller train past-due car shipments were 1,879 overall, an average of 9.7 days late. North Dakota had 864 of those, or 45 percent. Those cars were late an average of 8.5 days. Montana had 470 past-due cars, with 11.4 days late.
Meanwhile, CP, which is implementing a new car ordering system, had cut its cumulative open requests for grain cars to 5,866 in the U.S. as of its Sept. 5 report to the STB, with an average delay time of 12.5 weeks. That was down 22 percent from the previous week’s 7,535 open orders and delays of 13.1 weeks late.
Meanwhile, the massive grain harvest could exceed permanent storage bins by about 694 million bushels this harvest season, or about 3.5 percent of expected totals, said Arthur Neal, who analyzes market and transportation issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Reuters Media contributed to this report.