Farmers’ rail concerns addressed

Farm Forum

A federal transportation official said in Aberdeen on Nov. 20 that the concerns area farmers have about rail service have been heard.

Daniel Elliott, chairman of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, spoke to members of the South Dakota Farmers Union at the organization’s convention at the Ramkota Hotel and Convention Center.

“I know it’s been a difficult time,” Elliott said, “I know. I do feel the concerns. I will do everything I can to keep railroads aware that we are watching.”

Elliott explained ways that the board responded to concerns about rail service in the last year. He complimented those in the ag industry for speaking out and bringing the important issues to the board’s attention.

“I want to thank South Dakotans and Ag Secretary Lucas Lentsch for bringing concerns about the rail system to our attention,” Elliott said. “You let us know what the problems were, and we addressed what we could do to improve the situations.”

“Last year at about this time, things began to slow down, “ Elliott said. “While things grew to a critical point in moving ag commodities, I believe things have improved, but there still is work to get done.”

Concerns were compounded early in the year when weather conditions affected the movement of grain out of the area. Many in the industry became worried about how enough fertilizer would be shipped into the region for spring planting. Weather, capacity of the rail lines and commitment by the rail companies created a perfect storm that clogged the system.

The Surface Transportation Board handles railroad rate and service disputes. It held regional hearings where farmers expressed their frustration. Elliott believes that “if we wouldn’t have had those discussions, we wouldn’t have been able to get fertilizer to this area when you needed it.”

Elliott said the board responded by issuing orders to the rail companies to address service issues.

“Within five days of putting out an order for the rail companies to get a plan to get fertilizer to the area, both BNSF and CP responded,” Elliott said.

He said BNSF Railway moved 56 unit trains and the Canadian Pacific railroad 2,600 carloads.

Elliott said he’s been encouraged by the commitment by BNSF, which spent $5.5 billion on upgrades to its system in the last year. BNSF just announced its planned capital expenditures for 2015 will be $6 billion, which will go toward maintenance and expansion of the railroad, he said.

He said that when harvest came, the rail companies focused on moving shuttle trains and the service for smaller groups has dropped off. That continues to be an issue. The railroads need to improve shuttle turnaround times and reduce the number of days late for ordered rail cars.

Elliott praised the work of the Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program, which has worked informally to get solutions. He urged those with issues to contact the staff at 1-866-254-1792 or by emailing at