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Legislators: Rail delays causing 'crisis' for Minnesota businesses

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Minnesota lawmakers heard a boatload of evidence Tuesday about the problems backlogged railroads are causing the state's businesses.

More than 40 legislators from five committees heard four hours of testimony about the money and headaches railroad delays are costing farmers, mines, power plants, and passengers, Forum News Service reports.

The hearing did not lead to any immediate action, but lawmakers are considering what steps they might take when the legislative session begins in January, Forum News says.

A surge in traffic has hit Minnesota's rails since North Dakota oil trains were added to the mix. The supply of trains is no longer able to keep up with the demand for shipping, and Tuesday's testimony came from several of the groups that have felt the impact.

Grain grounded

Minnesota grain farmers will soon begin one of the biggest harvests the state has ever seen. Much of it is likely headed for storage bins because there aren't trains available to haul it to market. And any corn or soybeans that are loaded onto trains will cost farmers far more than they used to.

WCCO says numbers provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture showed the cost of shipping grain by rail is about five times more than it was a few years ago – rising from an average of $750 per rail car to nearly $6,000.

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Taconite and power plants, too

The railroad pain extends beyond the state's farm fields onto the Iron Range and beyond. Taconite plants in northeastern Minnesota have been unable to ship what they've mined.

Forum News says a U.S. Steel executive testified Tuesday that 250,000 tons of taconite are sitting on the ground in Minnesota, awaiting shipment to plants in Alabama and Illinois.

Coal-burning power plants have been unable to keep their fuel supplies up. Minnesota Power announced in September it's shutting down four generators for three months in to preserve the limited supply of coal on hand as winter approaches.

Propane suppliers working to avoid a repeat of last winter's supply shortage are similarly concerned about long delays in rail delivery, Forum News reports.

"Everybody's service has suffered"

Some frustrated customers have attributed the backlogs to railroad companies giving preference to oil trains. But railroad companies have denied that and say oil companies are having to wait, too.

Session Daily reports Brian Sweeney, a regional vice-president with BNSF Railway said Tuesday: "We are not prioritizing oil trains. Everybody's service has suffered."

Sweeney said BNSF is planning billions of dollars worth of additions to its tracks in the next few years in addition to purchasing new locomotives and hiring 350 more Minnesota employees, Forum News reports.

No solution in sight

While discussion of the problem was abundant Tuesday, a near-term solution seems elusive.

"All of the solutions are several years out," Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation testified, Forum News says.

WCCO reports Christianson noted that the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota are not projected to reach their peak output until 2023 or '24, when they will be pumping about 2 million barrels per day.

In the meantime, Minnesota faces the task of managing what DFL Rep. Joe Atkins of Inver Grove Heights called "a growing crisis," Session Daily says.

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