Rail industry and government struggle to balance safety and efficiency in shipments

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON — Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, sums up the current rail shipping conditions for Minnesota grain farmers in a single sentence:

“What a difference a year makes.”

A transportation crisis driven by more crude oil trains and bitterly cold weather in 2013-2014 turned into a reasonably smooth ride in 2014-2015.

Railroad investments in tracks and manpower helped.

But without this year’s confluence of a longer harvest, milder winter, slightly depressed yields and low crop prices, commodity shippers could still be at risk of service problems, especially as new government efforts to avoid fiery derailments of oil trains threaten to once again slow down traffic on the state’s rails.

In the harvest season of 2013-2014, cold weather and burgeoning rail shipments of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, as well as jumps in other train traffic, delayed grain deliveries, not to mention shipments of coal to power companies trying to generate electricity.

Now, a new study conducted by the University of Minnesota for the Soy Transportation Coalition shows grain shippers with declining past due orders and shorter delays for trains that are behind schedule.

That, said Soy Coalition director Mike Steenhoek, is partly a function of the rail industry’s investments in tracks and manpower.

“We did see the railroads respond,” he said.

But in 2014-2015, the harvest season stretched out into a milder winter. Meanwhile, many corn farmers faced with shrinking demand and lower prices chose not to ship their products.

Any change could portend more shipping problems as new oil train speed restrictions take effect in urban areas.

“That would add congestion to an already congested network,” Zelenka said.

Some grain and feed association members are concerned about new slowdowns in commodity deliveries at the very moment old slowdowns seem to be abating, Zelenka said. But they also operate grain elevators alongside tracks where oil trains loaded with explosive Bakken crude pass. They must weigh their worries.