Earlier this year, severe winter conditions across North America coupled with the continued boom of bulk crude oil shipments originating from the Bakken region of North Dakota led to significant railcar bottlenecks and shortages. Business media was quick to note that the rail car shortage problems stemmed from pileups at the BNSF Railway, which was one of other railroads heavily burdened by surging demand for crude oil transport.  The problem was a classic capacity-constrained network, as winter conditions incurred a heavy toll on equipment and schedules. At the time, the railcar shortage was expected in extend further into the year.  BNSF Locomotive unsized

A recent published report from Bloomberg now indicates that grain farmers in the upper Mid-West region of the United States now have a compounding problem.  The article quotes grain industry sources indicating that 10 to 15 percent of last year’s grain crop still remains stored in silos because of the continued lack of availability of specialized bulk rail cars to transport the crop. Some contracts for delivery of grain from as far back as March remain unfulfilled.

This problem is expected to now compound further because the harvest of spring wheat is about to take place.  Grain elevators still contain storage of the prior harvest while an expected large harvest needs to be stored and transported to designated domestic and export markets. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. spring wheat crop will rise to a four year high in the coming weeks, the bulk of which coming from the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana. The president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association is quoted as indicating: “With the railroad situation the way it is, it almost looks hopeless as far as catching up.”

From our Supply Chain Matters lens, the key railroad carriers, BNSF and Canadian Pacific seem to be taking the classic rear-view mirror approach to the problem.  A BNSF group vice president reports to Bloomberg that the backlog is expected to be down to less than 2000 past-due railcars by the middle of September.  Bloomberg further reports that as of the end of July, the Canadian Pacific reported in excess of 22,000 requests for grain cars in North Dakota being an average 11.7 weeks late while over 7000 rail cars are over 12 weeks late in Minnesota.

We strongly suspect that farmers, agricultural distributors and consumer goods companies are more interested in the plans that railroads will put in-place to avoid both the past and expected upcoming railcar backlogs.   What are these railroads specifically addressing to get in front of the problem? More than likely the resolution involves broader considerations including crude-oil shipments taking up the bulk of line capacities, along with compounding specialty rail car supply and demand imbalances.

Last winter, rail bottlenecks and delays rippled not only to grain and crude oil, but to other bulk commodities such as sugar and fertilizer, and to the shipment of automobiles and steel. According to this latest Bloomberg report, rail lines anticipate the backlog of grain rail shipments could extend through the October-November period, which overlaps with other agricultural harvests. Some railroads may not recover at all, which will present additional shipping challenges for farmers, grain operators, and indeed other industry supply chains in the coming months. As noted in previous commentaries, ongoing capacity and driver shortages among U.S. trucking companies cannot be relied on to solve this problem, nor is it economical for shippers and producers.

U.S. rail transportation infrastructure remains challenged and there needs to be concerted efforts to address both short and longer-term resolution of consistent reliability in rail shipping networks.

To our readers directly involved in the impacts of these bottlenecks, let us know what you are observing. How can  and should railroads resolve these bottlenecks?

Bob Ferrari