The U.S. Surface Transportation Board is directing the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway Co. to outline their plans to get fertilizer to farmers who need it in time for planting.
At a public hearing last week in Washington, D.C., the board heard from farmers and other agriculture representatives that without timely delivery of adequate amounts of fertilizer, they would not be able to start spring planting.
The railroads must also provide weekly updates to the board, beginning April 25, over the next six weeks.
In a statement, Burlington Northern said it would cooperate with the board.
BNSF “will undertake several specific actions to expedite fertilizer delivery to ensure our customers have the fertilizer where and when they need it,” the company stated. “BNSF understands the importance of ensuring the fluidity of the supply chain during this critical period.”
It’s rare for the board to step in and direct railroad service, said Terry Whiteside, a transportation consultant in Billings, Mont.
“They had to act,” he said. “The biggest crisis the board saw was that in the next 10 days to two weeks, corn, soybean and wheat planting were going to be started and the fertilizer needs are immediate.”
Many farmers pre-paid for the fertilizer last fall, Whiteside said.
Whiteside likened the rail system to a freeway overloaded with traffic. The board is monitoring railroads and asking for data to see if it will improve, but Whiteside predicts more problems through the end of the year. The rail is already near capacity, he said, and he foresees a 500 percent increase in volume in the next five to 10 years with coal and crude oil traffic.
Railroads need to increase capacity to move traffic, Whiteside said. The railroads will need to spend “massive expenditures” to do so.
Whiteside called for improved communication between the railroads and customers, saying there needs to be a “department of straight answers.”
“The shippers can plan up to a point if they know what’s going on,” he said. “When they aren’t told and are unaware of how much problems the railroads are having, it makes it very difficult and expensive for the shippers to operate.”