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Rail service shortage continues as farmers get ready for new harvest

Trucks hauling wheat wait to unload at the Fordville, ND, Co-op Elevator this week. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Dennis Dalbey, Fordville Co-op Elevator manager, is frustrated by delays in delivery of rail cars to ship wheat to market. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
John Capp, a farmer from Lankin, ND, unloads wheat at the Fordville, ND, Co-op Elevator Tuesday. Capp and other farmers are hauling in last year's wheat to make room for the new crop. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

FORDVILLE, N.D.  — Crews at Fordville Cooperative Marketing Association’s elevator loaded a 100-car unit train Sunday.

For the next three days, a constant convoy of farm trucks large and small rolled through town, most of them delivering spring wheat from last year’s harvest that has been stored on farms.

John Capp, who farms south of Lankin, N.D., waited early Tuesday afternoon in his 1973 International truck for his turn at the elevator.

“I hauled in four loads Monday, three today,” he said. “We’ve got to make room for this year’s crop.” 

By Wednesday, the elevator was full again.

“Every time we get a unit train, farmers come in,” said FCMA Manager Dennis Dalbey. “Then we wait for another one. How long that will take, we don’t know.”

The Fordville elevator, like others throughout the Northern Plains, has been enduring a nearly year-long shortage of rail cars to move commodities to market.

The train that arrived in this Walsh County community of 210 this weekend was ordered in March, Dalbey said.

The farmer-owned Fordville elevator has received just five unit trains since May. That compares with four alone in July 2013.

BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways, which handle the vast majority of freight train traffic in the Northern Plains, say they’re doing the best they can to provide trains to farm country while also dealing with substantial increases in demand for oil cars to serve the Oil Patch in western North Dakota and in other products, such as large equipment and containers.

The Fordville elevator is served by Fordville-based Northern Plains Railroad, a regional short-line railroad that has been in service since 1997. It leases nearly 400 miles of branch line track in North Dakota and Minnesota from Canadian Pacific, which supplies the freight cars.

“We’re mainly a wheat shipper to Chicago,” Dalbey said. “That’s where the bottleneck is, with grains going east.”

With this year’s harvest on the horizon, farmers and elevator officials say that continued rail-car delivery delays are costing them money.

Applying pressure

In a letter last week to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the North Dakota Public Service Commission urged the regulatory agency that oversees railroad shipments to require railroads to devote more resources to transporting crops.

“This year’s crops are ripening, farmers are preparing for harvest, and far too many storage facilities are full or near capacity,” PSC Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, who now holds the rail portfolio, said in the letter. “The conditions are ripe for a significant problem with the 2014 crop.”

In the past week, Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., have met with BNSF Railway Executive Director Matt Rose and Canadian Pacific CEO E. Hunter Harrison.

Meanwhile officials with BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway have been telling state officials and agricultural leaders in North Dakota and Minnesota that the situation is improving.

In a recent update to the STB, Canadian Pacific reported that as of July 31, there were 22,457 requests for grain cars in North Dakota versus 23,818 the prior week and on average, cars are 11.71 weeks late. There are 7,193 requests in Minnesota versus 8,246 the prior week and, on average, cars are 12.43 weeks late.

The train that arrived in Fordville over the weekend was ordered in late March, more than 19 weeks before its arrival.

 “We’d like to get 2,000 to 2,400 cars a year. That’s where we’d like to be, with a normal crop. We’ve been 1,500 to 1,600 cars lately,” Dalbey said.

“It’s kind of frustrating. It’s really tough to sell grain when you don’t know when the cars are coming in,” he added. “And we’ve got this year’s crop out there.”

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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