FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The head of BNSF Railway said Thursday his company has made dramatic progress in the last month clearing out a backlog of grain cars and could be caught up for harvest if crops come in late as some are predicting.
Matt Rose, BNSF's executive chairman, told a group of agriculture producers and shippers at a meeting in Fargo that the number of past-due grain cars should be at less than 1,000 in a week, down from 4,000 in mid-July. There has been a 77 percent reduction in the backlog since March, Rose said.
"If the harvest is later than we think, and the farmer doesn't sell, we'll go to zero on those past dues," Rose said.
Farmers are worried about getting their product to market, especially considering that 15 percent of the 2013 crop remains in storage bins. The possibility of record yields could also create more demand on an overburdened system.
"That's a very, very big concern," said Dan Wosgland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. "We've got to move this crop."
Many farmers and some North Dakota officials believe the increased crude oil and freight shipments from the state's booming oil patch are largely the cause of shipping delays, which have created big backlogs at grain elevators and added costs for agriculture shippers. Rose said Thursday that BNSF does not favor one industry over another and the delays between the grain and oil cars in 2013 are the same.
"We're not proud of this, but both fleets are exactly down to the same amount," Rose said. "That's not to say to our ag community, well, you should now be happy because our ag cars are going every bit as slow as our oil cars. It's just the reality. We do not believe that unintentionally or intentionally we have discriminated against either of these. "
Rose also reiterated earlier assertions by the railroads that brutal winter weather and bottlenecks in Chicago were major factors in the setbacks. And he pointed out North Dakota's rapid growth that has led the number of BNSF shipments in and out of North Dakota to balloon by 144 percent in the last 5½ years.
"For the entire industry, North Dakota accounted for 20 percent of the growth in 2013," Rose said. "It's just phenomenal."
Rose said BNSF is adding infrastructure that will benefit all rail-users in the long-term, but acknowledged there have been short-term headaches for producers.
North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp said they would continue to push the railways to be prepared for the fall harvest. Hoeven said another meeting is planned Monday with Canadian Pacific officials and "we'll have the same discussion then."
Heitkamp noted that 25 percent of North Dakota's economy comes from agriculture.
"Just as your options are limited when you're producing oil right now, you're options are limited when you're producing grain," Heitkamp said. "It's got to move by train out of our state. And when it's not moving by train it's costing folks money."