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Farmers plead with feds for help on rail transport delays

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The fall harvest will begin in just a few weeks, and many Midwestern farmers are concerned whether they'll be able to ship their grain to market because of delays in rail service.

The major railroads in the region are shipping a great deal more oil from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota, and that means grain shipments are being delayed.

Minnesota farmers brought their concerns to a congressional committee last week, at the same time senators from Minnesota and North Dakota are urging federal regulators to beef up their oversight of the railroads, the Forum News Service reports.

Some farmers say they haven't been able to ship last year's harvest yet, and have to store their grain in huge bags since local elevators are full. The situation will only get worse this fall since the corn and soybean crops are expected to reach record levels, according to the Star Tribune.

Fosston area farmer Robert Johnson was one of those who testified at the hearing. He told the Star Tribune that his local co-op grain elevator is being charged $4,000 to reserve a rail car to pick up and deliver its grain. Just a short while ago, it cost only $700.

In recent days, Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp -- all Democrats -- have called for better oversight of the rail system by the Surface Transportation Board. A few weeks ago, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton wrote a letter to the board asking it to get more specifics from the railroads on the shipping delays.

The Senate Commerce Committee is considering a bill to give the board more authority to allow it to investigate complaints about railroad service on its own. Right now it must wait for a formal complaint to be filed, said the Forum News Service.

"Many shippers in Minnesota depend on rail service to get their goods to the Mississippi River, and then shipped on barges," Franken said in a letter. "The barge season ends with cold weather, and I’ve heard from shippers who are concerned that they won’t be able to get their goods on the river before it’s too late."

The main rail carriers in the upper Midwest, BNSF and Canadian Pacific, reported earlier in the month that their grain cars headed for Minnesota were weeks behind schedule but that they were working to improve the situation. The railroad industry has promised to spend $26 billion this year to improve service.

"For a not insignificant group of rail customers, rail service in recent months has not been of the quality they have come to expect," Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, told the committee, according to the Forum News Service.

“Rest assured, railroads are working tirelessly to remedy these challenges.”

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