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Sinner, Peterson talk grain train delays at ag roundtable in Cavalier

CAVALIER, N.D. – U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and George Sinner know about the problem.

They’ve heard from plenty of farmers about rail shipment delays. What’s harder to grasp is an immediate solution.

Sinner and Peterson heard from farmers, retailers and bankers in Cavalier on Thursday afternoon about various agriculture-related issues they’re facing.

Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Committee on Agriculture, and Sinner, a Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Kevin Cramer for North Dakota’s lone House seat, participated in a conference call with  media afterward.

Farm groups have raised concerns in recent weeks about delays affecting their ability to move crops quickly. A cold winter, a large grain harvest and increased oil train traffic have been cited for the delay.

BNSF, the largest railroad in North Dakota, is investing about $400 million in North Dakota in part to increase capacity.

“I think that Burlington Northern at least, they’ve got the message. They are putting more resources in,” said Peterson, who went to Cavalier as Sinner’s guest. “The problem is, in the short term that’s not going to really probably do much.”

Past due

The situation has only become more urgent as the summer comes to an end and harvest season kicks in, Peterson said.

Many storage bins are still full from last year’s harvest, Julie Fedorchak, a member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, said in a separate interview.

“We’ve got to get this stuff moved,” Peterson said.

Sinner said ethanol producers have also been affected by delayed railcars.

“We’re hearing it across the board,” he said.

Sinner floated the idea of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board using its emergency powers to address the grain car shortage. The PSC sent a letter to the board Monday, calling for an urgent response to the delays.

In an Aug. 1 filing to the Surface Transportation Board, BNSF reported 2,399 past-due cars in North Dakota and 468 in Minnesota. Cars are past due when they are more than three days past the desired date, according to the filing.

On July 18, BNSF reported 3,908 past-due cars in North Dakota and 399 in Minnesota.

BNSF expects that by October, it will have its national backlog down to 2,000 cars, “a fraction of which will be in North Dakota,” according to a news release from U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

Canadian Pacific reported Aug. 1 that its average age of open requests was 11.71 weeks in North Dakota. That’s up from 11.15 weeks a week prior.

“Past experience tells producers that if cars are tight at the beginning of harvest, what’s it going to be when it gets to crunch time?” said Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.