BNSF addresses rail car backlog

Charles Crane/MDN A BNSF locomotive waits at the BNSF Railway Gavin Yard in Minot. The backlog of BNSF grain cars in North Dakota currently sits at 2,752 cars past due.

For most of 2022 a freight rail backlog has left farmers and ranchers holding the bag, unable to bring their products to markets. With the supply chain stalled, producers are forced to pay holding fees the longer their commodities remain unshipped.

The Surface Transportation Board held a hearing in April to address these concerns, with North Dakota Senators Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven both calling for major railroad companies to take action, and provide biweekly reports on their backlog status and their efforts to increase service.

“Our farmers and ranchers need access to reliable rail service, and these ongoing transportation disruptions create a real problem for both producers and consumers.” Hoeven said in a release.

BNSF’s backlog of grain cars in North Dakota currently is at 2,752 cars past due, which is down from a peak of 3,600 grain cars in May.

The Canadian Pacific Railway also operates in North Dakota and serves the elevator at CHS-Sun Prairie in Minot. CP has been filing reports with the STB as well, and in stark contrast to BNSF, CP has dropped from a little over 500 past-due orders in April, to only 25 as of the first two weeks of June.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne spoke with The Minot Daily News, saying there hasn’t been much grumbling from producers in the state yet. However, Watne believes reducing the backlog over the next two months is critical for North Dakota farmers and ranchers with harvest on the horizon.

“It’s a little too early to tell right now as we’re not getting a lot of calls at the moment. Elevators are clearing out and getting ready in anticipation for harvest. It could get quite serious once we get closer to August.” Watne said.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway company president Katie Farmer responded in a letter before the hearing, pointing out the pandemic’s effect on the rail industry, afflicted by workforce shortages, and the limited availability of additional locomotives and grain cars. BNSF has announced that they will be hiring 3,000 new employees, offering a $15,00 hiring bonus as an incentive. The company will also be adding 350 locomotives to their fleet, while also increasing their shuttle turns from 2 to 2.5 per month.

“The steps that BNSF is taking to address this issue are encouraging.” Hoeven continued, “We will hold them to that commitment and continue working to resolve the rale car backlog in our state.”

The grain car backlog on its own may only be a part of the problem. The global supply chain crisis has been playing itself out over the last two years, choking domestic ports in the vain attempt to satiate demand for products and commodities. The quagmire at American ports is contributing to a general shortage of shipping containers, exacerbated by the choice of carriers to return empty containers to Asia for reloading. This choice disrupts the continuum of global trade, leaving our domestic exports like grain with nowhere to go.

Sen. Hoeven was among 20 bi-partisan lawmakers to sponsor the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which was signed into law by President Biden on June 16. The intent behind OSRA is to prevent carriers from declining American exports, curtail “demurrage and detention” charges, and increase regulation and transparency.


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