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Not ready to roll: Rail backup creates taconite shipping worries

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The regional rail logjam is creating concern that Minnesota-mined taconite will not be able to be loaded onto ore boats and shipped through the Great Lakes before winter limits travel for the season.

The Star Tribune reports that tons of finished taconite pellets that should be en route to steelmakers are piled in ports in Duluth, Superior and Two Harbors instead. Sen. Amy Klobuchar told a Senate committee hearing that one Minnesota mining company has 250,000 tons of taconite sitting on the ground and another has 85,000 tons stockpiled because of rail service disruptions.

The Northlands News Center reported the backlog has come from an increased demand for crude from the oil fields of North Dakota, where an estimated 15,000 train carloads of petroleum products are shipped by rail each week. That's more than double the amount shipped in 2010. There's an apparent shortage of locomotives and train crews to move the rail cars from the mines to the ports.

The shipping season typically closes from Jan. 15 to March 25, according to Adele Yorde, public relations manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Yorde added that railroads and ships are playing catch-up after the Great Lakes lost 18 to 20 percent of their cargo shipments due to heavy ice during the start of the shipping season.

Farmers, grain elevator managers, coal shippers, utilities, Amtrak executives and Gov. Mark Dayton have also complained about rail delays. They've testified about the problem at hearings in Washington and Fargo, N.D. Some have accused the rail firms of giving preference to the more lucrative oil shipments.

Rail firms have denied that they favor crude over other cargo and have told the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, that the slowdowns are a result of increased shipments of all commodities.

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