Harsh Winter and Freight Traffic Leave Farmers Waiting

By Beacon Staff

The delays on BNSF Railway that have hampered Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train this year have also impacted the movement of grain in North Dakota and Montana.

Shippers like CHS Kalispell have at times waited weeks for freight cars to haul last year’s harvest that is now stored in its overflowing elevators. In some cases, local farmers cannot even bring the crop to the local grain elevator because it’s out of space.

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” said Mark Lalum, general manager and grain merchant for CHS Kalispell. “Farmers are trying to plant this year’s crop and deliver last year’s crop at the same time.”

Lalum said BNSF has still not delivered empty grain cars he requested back in February, a common problem across the region. According to the railroad, as of April 17, more than 3,000 grain cars had not arrived at their destination to be loaded with grain in Montana. It was even worse in North Dakota, where more than 7,000 cars were “past due.” The average grain car was more than 30 days late in Montana and 25 days late in North Dakota.

The railroad blamed the delays on major increases in freight traffic in 2013 and a harsh winter on the northern plains and Montana. In early March, BNSF’s main line over Marias Pass was closed twice due to avalanches near Essex. Lola Raska, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, called the situation a “perfect storm.” But some farmers also blamed the increase in oil that is riding the rails through North Dakota and Montana.

The movement of crude oil on America’s rails has increased rapidly in the last few years. In 2008, Class 1 railroads, which include the largest rail companies in America, transported just 9,500 carloads of crude oil. Five years later, in 2013, they moved more than 400,000 carloads.

“I don’t think agriculture is a top priority for BNSF right now because crude oil pays more,” said Kristen Krueger of Krueger Farms Inc. in Kalispell. “They say every customer is important, but they’re not.”

Krueger said the longer it takes to move last year’s harvest, the longer it takes to get farmers paid, which makes it hard to budget for the new season.

BNSF officials said crude oil is not causing the delays and it values all of its shippers. Crude oil still only represents about 4 percent of its overall traffic, according to spokesperson Matt Jones, who added that the biggest increase in traffic was from intermodal and containers.

“BNSF recognizes the severe impact that our service issues are having on our agricultural customers in Montana and we are committed to restoring service levels,” Jones told the Beacon. “Service improvements are beginning to occur and we remain focused and committed to restoring service to the levels our customers need and have come to expect from BNSF.”

Jones said in 2014 the railroad plans to invest roughly $5 billion in its infrastructure, including tracks, locomotives and cars. The money will add capacity on the rails and help improve service.

BNSF is not the only railroad falling short in its efforts to deliver agricultural products on time. On April 15, the Surface Transportation Board ordered BNSF and the Canadian Pacific Railway to submit plans to increase shipments and give the agency weekly updates, especially regarding the delivery of fertilizer needed for spring planting.

Lalum at CHS said this isn’t the first winter that BNSF has struggled to keep up with demand and, as the weather warms, he hopes the service improves.

“I think they’re doing everything they can to catch up,” he said. “It was just one of those winters.”