Railroad says it’s trying to catch up with demand

Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Rail capacity issues in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains mean less railcar availability for farmers expecting large harvests. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is working to address the problem, a spokeswoman says.

As wheat harvest continues across the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Plains, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway officials say they are catching up with the backlog of grain shipments across the region.

In the last year, demand for moving oil from Canadian and North Dakota oil fields has reduced the availability of trains to the grain industry, particularly in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Many agricultural past due railcar orders are now becoming more current, said Amy Casas, director of corporate communications for BNSF.

“We are getting very close to moving all of our 2013 harvest past due orders and have achieved more than an 80 percent reduction in past due orders across our system since the high point in March,” Casas said.

The railroad will be down to less than 2,000 past due railcars by the middle of September, Casas said.

“With this kind of progress, we’re confident that we will have moved virtually all of the 2013 harvest over the next several weeks and are ready to handle this year’s crop,” she said.

Billings, Mont., transportation consultant Terry Whiteside says he remains skeptical, noting that northern rail routes are still clogged.

“We’re starting to see a price be paid by commodities that are less profitable for the Burlington Northern, and they’re preferring other traffic that’s more profitable,” he said. “I think we’re already starting to see the railroad shed some of what it considers to be expendable.”

“BNSF is not favoring crude shipments over other shippers like agriculture,” Casas responded. “This is a case of rapid growth for several commodities using parts of our network that hadn’t previously seen that kind of volume.”

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board in June required BNSF and Canadian Pacific Railway Company to publicly file their plans to resolve their backlogs and provide weekly status reports pertaining to grain car service.

On Aug. 15, BNSF reported 2,671 past due cars to the board, with 1,262 in North Dakota, 599 in Montana and 221 in Minnesota. There were 119 in Washington, six in Oregon and five in Idaho. The average number of days late for all outstanding grain orders was 17 days.

The number of past due orders was down from 3,492 the week before, the railroad reported.

Car orders become past due when they are more than three days past the desired want date, according to the railroad.

The railroad also saw increases in automotive and industrial products traffic, more coal volumes, more crude by rail and a grain traffic surge in late 2013 driven by compressed and overlapping crop harvests, Casas said.

BNSF invested $4 billion to expand its system-wide capacity last year, Casas said, and announced a capital plan of $5 billion in February. About $1 billion of that was to be spent in the Northern Plains and Pacific Northwest.

By the end of the year, the company will increase double track in service on the Glasgow subdivision in Montana and western North Dakota from nearly 30 to 60 miles, increasing capacity by 10 trains a day to 62 trains. The railroad plans to double track 115 miles of the subdivision by 2016.

“Adding rail capacity takes time and adding capacity under increased traffic potentially decreases velocity,” Casas said. “We will manage these windows as best we can and anticipate less disruption than last year.”



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