The rail delays hampering agribusiness in the Upper Midwest have been big news for weeks now. Federal authorities are getting involved to help alleviate the problem and assist elevators and farmers.
They’ve lost millions. An NDSU study showed farmers in North Dakota lost almost $67 million this year so far because of the delays of grain shipments, and could lose another $100 million if the situation doesn’t improve. It’s important to note that that figure just represents farmers — not elevators or other small businesses — and only in North Dakota.
Railroad companies and even the NDSU study say the delays are caused by a combination of factors: oil traffic, cold weather and a large grain crop.
There’s one cause for this: oil traffic.
Railways made a business decision to favor that industry because transporting oil brings in more money than transporting ag products. The farmers know it and have been saying it for months. It’s not a mystery. If it’s supposed to be a secret, it’s impossible to keep because it’s so obvious. This truth is staring (if not slapping) us in the face.
I guess we aren’t supposed to notice those things.
Grain cars for one rail company are almost a month late now in North Dakota. Two area railways were asked by the Surface Transportation Board during a recent hearing if oil cars are experiencing the same unprecedented delays. Officials from both companies said they didn’t know.
I think they do. I think the answer to that question (clearly, “No”) is an embarrassing one that nobody wants to admit to, in light of the attention this problem is getting and the disapproval of the STB and state-level organizations, not to mention farmers, businesses, farm groups, etc.
And now it’s not just grain cars. Fertilizer deliveries are behind, too. This week’s Agweek cover story is about the fact that late planting has eased that pressure a bit, but it’s still a problem. The STB is mandating weekly updates from two major railway companies on their progress in getting fertilizer to farmers.
This is a problem. A big one.
It needs a fix. And it needs to be quick. Legislators from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota sent a letter this week to the chairman of the STB, asking for more, swift action to help farmers and others whose business has been deemed less important by rail companies.
The letter praises the recent action the board took, but says more work needs to be done.
Finally we are seeing some progress. Let’s hope that progress doesn’t slow.