Senators ask BNSF for better Montana service

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Rail shipping delays are hurting Montana’s economy and need to improve, the state’s U.S. senators told BNSF on Friday.

In a letter to Burlington Northern Sante Fe President Carl Ice, Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh said monthlong shipping delays are having damaging consequences on Montana agriculture, timber and natural resource industries.

The lawmakers fear that if shipping doesn’t improve, the state’s 2013 wheat crop could still be shipping this summer as the 2014 harvest begins.

The overlap between the two harvests could produce a storage problems and a wheat glut in the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The lawmakers said there are “growing concerns, both from those in agriculture and natural resources sectors, that we will not see an appreciable improvement on the rail capacity issue before farmers are in their fields for this year’s harvest.”

With long delays for service, rail car prices are at a premium, the senators said.

Shipping delays have troubled the Northern Tier of the United States for months as Bakken oil traffic drives up freight demand and weather and construction slow rail travel.

BNSF is trying to build its way out of the problem. The company spent $4 billion on infrastructure last year and will spend $5 billion this year. But track construction also slows rail traffic.

Shipping problems were complicated further by extremely long, cold winter conditions, which hampered air brake performance on long trains, causing further delays.

Thursday, BNSF reported that shipping times for farm products were improving. Commodity shipments were at there best levels since October. Fertilizer shipments were at their best pace since May 2013.

But challenges persist. In Montana, 3,038 rail cars were 32.5 days past due, according to Jim Miller, vice president of the BNSF agriculture group. Miller has been providing shipping updates to farmers dependent on the train. Delays were less in North Dakota at 25.5 days, but the number of overdue cars was more than double the number in Montana.

Weather challenges persist. Miller said the Scobey subdivision has been closed because of grading problems related to seasonal freezing and thawing.