Improving rail service

“We have a crisis pending here and a great crop on the way.”

That’s what North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Randy Christmann told E. Hunter Harrison, CEO and director of Canadian Pacific Railway, during a roundtable discussion held at Minot’s North Central Research Extension Center Monday.

Christmann was referring to CPR’s lengthy delays in supplying cars for shipping grain and other farm commodities, dating back to last year’s harvest. One producer said they hadn’t received any railroad cars since February. According to Sen. John

Hoeven, R-N.D., the average delay has been 10 and one-half weeks.

Hoeven, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring were among the state leaders and producers who were seeking to find a solution to increasing demand placed on rail shippers in the state.

A similar roundtable was conducted in Fargo last week with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Executive Chairman Matt Rose at the request of Hoeven. Hoeven opened Monday’s discussion with three requests that CPR supply better and more current information on railcar availability, reveal a short-term operating plan and develop a long-term plan to avoid similar delays in the future.

Harrison explained the difficulties facing CPR in meeting today’s increasing demands, often referring to regions far removed from North Dakota. He called areas like Chicago and Minneapolis “choke points” and stressed that CPR had run into opposition in areas where they’d like to build additional railroad lines that would expedite shipping. Employee shortages are a problem in some places too, said Harrison. He cited Harvey as an example.

“I’ve got jobs in Harvey we can’t fill,” said Harrison. “Tell me who and I’ll go recruit them. We’re paying $48 an hour.”

A common thread from Harrison was that the problem of delays in receiving railcars for shipping in North Dakota was exaggerated.

“We need the factual numbers, not inflated to make it look worse than it is and pound the papers,” said Harrison.

Heitkamp countered that the delays were real and that shippers had more than enough grain to fill the amount of railcars requested.

“I think we’re up to over $100 million lost out of farmers’ pockets now,” said Heitkamp. “The harvest ahead is going to be big.”

Goehring stated, “We need to resolve some things and get some questions answered.”

The senators and Harrison heard from several of the interested parties in attendance, many of whom told of lengthy delays in receiving railcars and expressed concern that the problem would resurface as soon as farmers begin bringing this year’s crop to the bins. Estimates are that the state is primed to harvest 257 million bushels of spring wheat in the coming days. One producer noted that the railroad couldn’t move a harvest of 200 million bushels a year ago.

“It’s in our interest to get a lot of grain moved here,” concluded Harrison. “We base a lot of our company values on service. What I heard today does not fit with what we want to do. I promise. I promise personally, and one of the most important things to me is integrity, that we will get this situation better and we will keep you all advised.”