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Railroad delays affecting agriculture

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Rail cars sit on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad in Dickinson on Friday. Increased rail traffic has led to delays in service for Amtrak and agriculture.

Along with causing delays or cancellations of Amtrak trains, increased traffic on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad is affecting agriculture product movement, like from Dickinson’s Southwest Grain.

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The increase in train traffic isn’t just crude by rail — though that is supposed to keep growing, to a projected 90 percent of North Dakota-produced crude being transported by rail next year, according to Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the railroad has also seen increased traffic in automotive and domestic intermodals.

The railroad has invested $220 million to improve and expand capacity in North Dakota this year, which McBeth said will benefit all customers.

Maintenance improvements include tie and rail replacements, and the railroad is also adding or extending sidings.

“Those are all examples of ways we can add to our capacity so that will improve the fluidity of the network and the efficiency of the network,” McBeth said.

Systemwide, similar improvements total $4.3 billion this year, a record capital commitment for the railroad.

The delays for Southwest Grain began in about July, when BNSF was getting started on maintenance and other improvements on the system.

“It appears as if what that’s done is created a bottleneck and we go right from that into cold weather it slows the velocity of the trains,” said Southwest Grain General Manager Delane Thom.

Stark County Commissioner Jay Elkin said he has noticed delays in the movement of grain or in getting the rails to move the grain.

If empty grain rail cars don’t get to the elevators on the planned date, the elevators sit full of grain.

“From about July on we really noticed a slowdown of movement of shuttle cars to the ag facilities, Southwest Grain being one of them,” Elkin said.

The delays from the planned date of arrival have grown to 20 days, Thom said, and come from a combination of volume growth and the winter weather lately, which, like for many things in North Dakota winters, just slows things down.

“Everything runs harder and slower,” McBeth said. “… That takes a toll when you have that extreme winter weather starting early.”

But agriculture customers understand that their sector isn’t the only one affected.

“It has had an impact to ag movement and likely that impact may have affected oil and coal as well,” Thom said.

Stark County zoning board members denied the rezoning for a proposed rail terminal project early this fall because, hearing of and witnessing issues with current rail service, they were concerned about adding more work to the line.

But after the first zoning hearing in September, board members and commissioners Russ Hoff and Elkin met with BNSF representatives and learned of planned improvements that made them comfortable enough to approve rezoning for Great Northern Project Development’s plan for a 686-acre terminal five miles west of South Heart.

“It was visiting with the railroad and (BNSF) telling us about how they were gonna take care of the ag plus the oil,” Hoff said after the full county commission approved the rezoning earlier this month.

Elkin said he learned in the meetings that within six or seven months customers will likely see improvements.