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Four senators urge STB to help ensure rail service improves for ag shippers

Earlier this week, U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Tim Johnson (‎D-S.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) urging the agency to "swiftly address" poor rail service they claim is impacting Midwest farmers, businesses and communities.

Last month, the STB directed BNSF Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific to provide reports stating how they planned to deliver fertilizer shipments in time for spring crop planting. The board also held a hearing to learn about Midwestern agricultural producers' struggles to access rail service.

"We write to urge you to remain involved in the process of improving rail service for customers in the Upper Midwest who, since November 2013, have been suffering from poor service," the senators wrote in the STB letter. "If rail service does not improve in the near future through steps taken by BNSF and Canadian Pacific, we request that you use whatever authority necessary to ensure such improvement, especially for agricultural customers struggling to move last year's crop to market and access needed inputs for planting."

More work needs to be done to restore an "acceptable level of service" for rail customers in the region, they said, adding that some farmers still haven't been able to ship last year's crop.

"Without the capital from the sale of their harvested crop, these farmers are struggling to pay for what they need for this year's planting," the senators wrote.

Agribusinesses also are facing rail service problems. Earlier this year, sugar production slowed at many factories because they couldn't get enough energy resources, the senators wrote.

"The sugar that did get processed couldn't get shipped anywhere. As a result, these factories ran out of storage space, so they couldn't accept new shipments even if the farmers could get enough rail cars," they said. "That situation has since improved to some degree, but any deterioration in service could halt production again."

BNSF and CP officials say they are taking steps to increase velocity and improve efficiency for fertilizer shipments and movements of other agricultural products. BNSF is handling unit fertilizer shipments similar to grain shuttles, adding shuttles into fertilizer service, better managing crew availability and trying to ensure estimated times of arrival are accurate, the railroad said.

CP is heightening the visibility of fertilizer shipments at the field level and accepting private cars for seasonal phosphate business, according to the railroad. In addition, the Class I has implemented a new train pair from Canada to the United States to support both grain and fertilizer service.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 5/15/2014