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Dayton wants U.S. to harvest answers from railroads on backlog

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A whole lot of grain is nearly ready for harvest in Minnesota farm fields. And with freight trains still hauling last year's crop, there are a lot of questions about how and when this year's grain will get to market.

Gov. Mark Dayton urged federal regulators Wednesday to demand more specifics from railroad companies about how they plan to reduce shipping delays, the Associated Press reports.

Dayton's letter to the Surface Transportation Board includes a University of Minnesota study that found delays in the delivery of corn, soybeans and wheat took a $109 million bite out of the state's farm economy this spring.

That study by the university's Center for Farm Financial Management says transportation delays led to lower cash grain bids. It measured their impact on Minnesota's farmers and grain elevators from March through May.

Railroads working to catch up

The two companies that provide most of Minnesota's freight rail service – BNSF and Canadian Pacific – have acknowledged the problems caused by the delays but say they've been making progress all summer in reducing the backlog.

Many critics maintain the delays plaguing farmers are caused by the railroads giving priority to tankers hauling crude oil from North Dakota.

At a speech in Fargo this month the chief executive of BNSF took exception to that, MPR News reported. Matt Rose said freight train traffic in general has been increasing across the country and insisted that oil trains are not being favored over those hauling grain.

Some farmers are clearly unconvinced, though. Bob Zelenka, the executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, tells the Star Tribune:

“When you’re sitting at a grain elevator waiting for cars to load, and every day you see oil trains pass by, it just adds insult to injury.”

2013 grain still waiting

When BNSF's Rose spoke in Fargo on Aug. 7, the Associated Press reported that 15 percent of the grain harvested last year was still in storage bins.

The Star Tribune reported Wednesday there are 100 million bushels of grain sitting in elevators and the same amount in storage on farms.

With the prospect of record grain harvests this fall, the AP reports there are concerns that the country's transportation system could be overwhelmed.

In June the Surface Transportation Board required the railroads to begin filing weekly reports on their progress in addressing the backlog. The Board noted then that BNSF had committed to moving last year's crop before the fall harvest.

But in his letter urging the Board to seek more answers, the governor says the reports from the railroads have lacked specifics. Dayton writes:

“The BNSF’s weekly report accounts for 2,671 grain cars among a grain fleet of 25,313,. What is the status of the other 90 percent of cars not contained within the report?”

The Surface Transportation Board has a September meeting in Minnesota and Dayton asked that his request be included on the agenda.

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