Working Through Substandard Rail Service


John Miller of BNSF Railway will be the first to tell you that the rail service they’re currently offering in much of our region is not up to standard.  Not only is that the standard of farmers sitting on last year’s grain, but it’s the standard that BNSF has set for itself.


BNSF serves four business groups.  Along with the agricultural division, they also move consumer products, coal, and industrial products such as crude oil.  It’s a huge machine, moving our nation’s freight and, according to 2012 data, employing more than 41,000 people.  While growth is no stranger to the company and its 165-year history, growth is now presenting its own challenges.


Miller, who serves as BNSF’s Group Vice President of Agricultural Products, says that 2013 was a good year for Montana and North Dakota.  Not only was oil production on the rise, but we saw a tremendous wheat crop and coal continued to be moved out of the region.  While successful, it came as a bit of a surprise.


“The speed of the growth at the end of last year and the ramp up in business,” Miller says, “was somewhat unexpected and we just frankly have not been able to keep up with it as much as we’d like to.”





Gordon Stoner calls his fourth-generation farm in Outlook, Montana home and serves as the Second Vice President of the National Association of Wheat Growers.  He’s a progressive farmer, eager to explore any agricultural innovation.  In the northeast part of the state, Stoner Farms is a 100{75f28365482020b1dc6796c337e8ca3e58b9dd590dc88a265b514ff5f3f56c30} no-till, continuous cropping operation raising durum, peas, and lentils along with commercial cattle.  Up next, they’re planting corn.


Stoner admits he’s very concerned about the backlog on the railroad.  “In our own area,” he says, “a number of farmers don’t feel they’ll have their crop delivered by the time the next harvest rolls in.”  This is a must as many are already experiencing storage problems.


Rob Davis expresses similar worries.  Davis is the Montana Grain Growers Association Treasurer and a farmer seeing the rail struggles firsthand.  From where he farms near Larslan, Montana, Davis says there are people that have only yet moved 20{75f28365482020b1dc6796c337e8ca3e58b9dd590dc88a265b514ff5f3f56c30} of last year’s production.





Canada’s record 2013 grain crop is turning to a bust as railroads in Canada have simply become overwhelmed.  The huge harvest was going in the bins as, simultaneously, the Canadian Wheat Board’s (CWB) reign on marketing that crop was ending.  As a result, farmers were left to take a much more dominant role in marketing their wheat than ever before.


Speculation is that if the CWB’s monopoly had not been ended, the transportation logistics that are plaguing the industry may have been better managed.  Regardless, Bloomberg reports that Canadian farmers could be stuck with more than 40{75f28365482020b1dc6796c337e8ca3e58b9dd590dc88a265b514ff5f3f56c30} of their 2013 crops heading into this year’s harvest.


Miller says there is no doubt that they’re seeing more interest from Canada in using the U.S. rail system.  “You’re going to see more and more Canadian farmers,” he says, “look to the U.S. as a way to get their grain to market just to give them more options.”  Addressing that the Canadian rail issues are also multiple, Miller explains farmers are looking south for solutions.





Along with having a freight level that surprised them late in 2013, BNSF has experienced the rough winter along with the rest of the nation.  Frigid temperatures have been plentiful.  For rail, that means smaller trains.


How much smaller?  Once the temperature hits 10° Fahrenheit, the train size has to be metered down.  That reduction increases significantly as the temperature falls below zero.  At 20 below, Miller says that as much as half of a train will move instead of the full train.  That takes up windows in the railroad and creates slower service.


The reduction in train size is foremost for safety.  Trains use air brakes.  The brakes cannot be maintained on a full train when it gets that brutally cold.   Air escapes through the system.  Along with maintaining safety, metering down the size ensures that trains don’t break down and get stuck on the tracks.





“The railroad admits that service has been abysmal this year,” contends Stoner, “but we’re trying to get through it.”  Discussions between farmers and BNSF are tense.  Stoner says, however, the needed conversations are taking place and work is being made.


Miller says that BNSF will spend $5 billion in maintenance and expansion in 2014.  Roughly $900 million of that will be centered in the northern tier of the railway.  


They will be double-tracking a segment of rail between Minot, North Dakota and Glasgow, Montana.  This will significantly impact the eligible capacity along the line.  They’ll be doing similar work in Washington which will allow them to take more trains from Montana and North Dakota while preventing bottlenecks in the Pacific Northwest.


“We’ve been working close with them (BNSF) in resolving these issues,” Davis says, “hopefully this issue is resolved and we can get this stuff moved.”




@Northern Ag Network 2014

Haylie Shipp


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