BNSF limiting freight sales, CP counts on late harvest

FARGO, N.D. -- Agricultural train shipments are getting a little better, but not as fast as Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway had expected. Some farmers and elevator operators are worried about harvest shipments.

A BNSF train waits, loaded with wheat
A BNSF train waits, loaded with wheat on July 1, at the Farmers Elevator terminal north of Glendive, Mont. Tim Mattick, general manager, says the railroad cycles 100-car shuttle trains at just over two per month, but single-car orders from May hadn’t arrived by July 10. Photo taken July 1, 2014, at Glendive, Mont. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)(Embargo to July 15, 2014, 1 a.m.)

 FARGO, N.D. - Agricultural train shipments are getting a little better, but not as fast as Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway had expected. Some farmers and elevator operators are worried about harvest shipments.

In the second in a series of mandatory weekly reports to the federal Surface Transportation Board, BNSF attorney Jill Milligan on July 7 said the number of outstanding grain cars is declining. She said 2,643 agricultural orders had been filled system-wide during the previous week, and the railroad had cut its past-due shipments by 9,000 since the March high.

BNSF still had 7,388 cars more than three days past due. The average is 26.6 days per car, Milligan said. North Dakota accounted for 64 percent of the total, with 4,696 cars late, waiting an average of 28.5 days per car. Milligan reported 967 newly past-due cars for the state at 42 elevator locations. North Dakota shippers made new orders for 258 cars, accounting for 61 percent of the new ag orders system-wide.

BNSF reported 25,070 cars in its active grain fleet, including 400 privately owned cars.

In a separate, voluntary podcast report on July 3, BNSF vice president John Miller said the company is still being hampered by weather. He said rains caused a line from Scobey, Mont., to Bottineau, N.D., to be out of service for periods during the previous week. Mississippi River flooding was causing problems in the Burlington, Iowa, area. Also, a line from Quincy, Ill., to St. Louis, Mo., was under water in several locations, and wouldn’t return to service until mid-July.


Target mid-August

Robert Johnson, CP senior vice president of operations, told the STB that his railroad has a backlog of 10,000 to 12,000 grain cars. He said CP is committed to “move this backlog as quickly as possible between now to late August, which corresponds to an expected late harvest for the 2014 crop year.”

CP currently has 3,999 grain hoppers in the U.S., and 4,050 hoppers offline. CP has a different ordering system than BNSF, and has 24,786 open requests for cars in North Dakota, but fulfilled 1,288 of them in the previous week. In Minnesota, CP had 8,186 open requests. In both states, the average age of open requests was about 9.7 weeks, or nearly 2.5 months.

CP has announced a new car ordering plan, but elevator operators say they haven’t seen final details.

Singles way behind

Tim Mattick, general manager of the Farmers Elevator in Glendive, Mont., says trains are still slow. BNSF has been behind for his co-op on single-car orders of 27 cars and fewer.

“Stuff that was due in May is just now showing up,” Mattick said July 10.

About 95 percent of the Glendive elevator’s shipping is wheat, and about 75 percent of that is spring wheat. Some low-protein wheat goes directly to mills that have that particular need. The elevator also ships pulse crops in trains of one to 10 cars.


Mattick says his elevator’s shuttles have been coming about a week later than ordered. Trains have to be loaded immediately to avoid railroad demurrage penalties, but then can sit for two or three days waiting for the railroad to move them.

In a recent meeting in Lewistown, Mont., BNSF officials told elevator operators they were getting caught up, Mattick says.

“My comment to them was that the only reason they’re getting caught up is that they limited the amount of freight they’re selling us,” Mattick says. “They’re getting caught up on the cars they’ll let you have, not on the amount of wheat they need to move before harvest. They said limiting the cars is the only way they can get caught up.”

Jim Broten, a Dazey, N.D., farmer and chairman of the North Dakota Ag Rail Business Council, said he’s concerned about the harvest.

“The true test is August to September, how they move the product.”

He says the situation will be improved because farmers in 2014 didn’t get to plant 500,000 acres of corn that they’d intended.

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