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Cold and slow: As rail issues hamper ag business, industry leaders want solutions

FNS Photo by Mikkel Pates A BNSF Railway Co. shuttle train takes on corn at a South Dakota shuttle-loading terminal on Feb. 8 in Harrold, S.D. Elevator operators in North Dakota and South Dakota train turnaround times are higher than ever this winter. Most suspect that some of the blame is on a burgeoning oil industry.

FARGO — Elevator operators are perennial critics of railroad service for hauling grain, but many say delays are worse than ever this winter.

The situation is bad enough that Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., called a meeting with the North Dakota congressional delegation and several officials connected to the issue on Feb. 11, in Washington, D.C., to discuss possible solutions for sugar beet, grain and passenger transportation interests.

Among those in the meeting were Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway, Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, Dan Wogsland of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, and three sugar officials — David Berg, president and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Co.; John Doxsie, president of United Sugars Inc., which markets sugar for American Crystal and two other cooperatives; and Jim Johnson, president of the U.S. Beet Sugar Association.

After the meeting, Hoeven told Forum News Service that BNSF committed to bring into the region 125 locomotives on short-term leases, which could be in place in the next week. He said the railroad will also bring in 250 people off seasonal furloughs, as well as begin posting delinquent train deliveries to a website this week.

During 2014, the railroad will invest $5 billion into its railroad network in expansions and improvements — at least $600 million of that in North Dakota — and add another 500 locomotive and 5,000 grain cars, as well as 5,000 employees to maintenance, system-wide, including 250 in North Dakota.

Berg said Rose talked about the surge in volume from all sectors — intermodal, crops, coal and oil — and said things will improve when temperatures are consistently above 10-below zero.

“With the weather forecast in the 20s in the next few weeks, it should help a lot,” Berg said. “That’s great to hear. But we don’t want to hear plans and projections; we want performance.”

American Crystal has had to slow deliveries at its Ardoch, N.D., facility. Berg said the coal movements have been “sufficient but not adequate,” and that the company is getting coal that is then trucked to its five plants, but inventory is low.

American Crystal had turned down the factory slice because it wasn’t able to ship sugar out fast enough to customers. It has since turned factory slice up at all locations but has “no breathing space” for storage, Berg said. He adds that the company has contingency plans to pile sugar in flat storage that would have to be reclaimed and put back through the factory.

“That’s not a good way to do it, but it’s better than discarding beets in the spring,” he said.

The region’s sugar beet companies aren’t the only ones in agriculture to be feeling the pain and certainly aren’t the only ones talking about it.