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OUR OPINION: Move crops up on railroads’ priority list

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opinion Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks Herald
(701) 780-1123 customer support
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

If you owned a delivery van, and you were tasked with getting a box of ice cream and a box of roller skates across town, which would you deliver first?

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The ice cream, naturally, because that product is time-sensitive. Roller skates remain roller skates if they’re delayed for an hour, but unrefrigerated ice cream gets ruined.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board now should use that logic in prodding the railroads to ship more crops. When railcars are in short supply, all products are not created equal, and those products that’ll spoil or degrade if they don’t get shipped promptly deserve top priority.

Among other crops, key supplies of Midwestern grain now deserve that stepped-up attention, because some of the product has awaiting shipment for months.

“The ramifications are serious for our state’s entire agriculture industry and could well have ramifications on our nation’s food supply as well,” the North Dakota Public Service Commission wrote last week to the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads.

“This problem is not only a problem for North Dakota, because when the grain is dumped on the ground while awaiting transportation, the food supply loses quality and goes up in price. Thus, this is a problem for the whole country.”

Time is of the essence as well because in wintertime, much of the upper Midwest gets its heat from coal. But coal shipments also are having a hard time getting through:

“The rapid growth in U.S. shipments of crude oil by rail is leading to an unexpected shortage of coal at many power plants across the country,” the Christian Science Monitor reported last week.

“Several utilities in the Midwest are watching their coal stockpiles diminish as they burn through inventories, as resupplies come in at a slower and slower pace.”

In most industries, competition quickly takes care of shortages, because the higher prices that result bring about more production and stepped-up deliveries.

But railroading is different and has been from the beginning. Over the decades, competition has developed in the form of trucking. But trains retain enough monopoly power that the government has kept its oversight.

Now, the Surface Transportation Board should exercise that authority to make sure deliveries of time-sensitive products get through.

At the close of their letter, the North Dakota commissioners urge the federal board “to take immediate action” and “require the railroads to devote more resources to transporting the 2013 and 2014 crop to market this fall so the quality of these commodities is preserved, and our producers and elevators don’t suffer significant financial harm.” Federal regulators should take the commissioners’ advice.

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Tom Dennis
(701) 780-1276
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