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Farmers lament inability to get bumper wheat crop to market
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Grain cars are in short supply across wheat country. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
The wheat harvest in the Northern Plains is complete and the crop is out of the field. Farmers have started to move the harvest from the farm to the elevator. But the next step will be more difficult. That is, finding enough railroad cars to move crops from elevators to markets around the country.

Moorhead, Minn. — A Canadian Pacific Railroad engine idles on a siding in Enderlin, North Dakota. A few grain cars sit on a nearby track.

There are no cars attached to the locomotive. It's a frustrating scene for elevator managers waiting for trains to ship this year's harvest. Keith Brandt, manager of the Plains Grain and Agronomy Co. in Enderlin, outlines the problem.

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Image Keith Brandt

"We're running about five to seven days late. And talking with an elevator manager in the eastern part of the state yesterday, his location was waiting for a train that was 17 days late," says Brandt. "(It) was probably going to be another four or five days before he got it. Another location was getting a train that was going to be 22 days late."

Brandt says part of the problem is the wheat harvest was better than anyone expected. The railroads did not plan for the amount of grain being harvested.

The Canadian Pacific railroad serves a small area of eastern North Dakota. The dominant rail carrier in the region is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Brandt says it doesn't matter which shipper elevators work with -- trains are hard to come by.

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Image Elevators face a shortage of grain cars

"During August we experienced larger-than-expected demand for transportation," says Steven Bobb, a vice president for Burlington Northern Santa Fe. "And that was coupled with us not moving our car fleet as we would have expected that we move it, or as we quickly as we moved it in the past."

Bobb says the railroad always falls behind consumer demand for cars during harvest. He says this year it happened sooner than expected. Bobb says finding more cars for shippers is more difficult then people realize.

"We don't tend to size our fleet by a set number of cars," says Bobb. "What we do is size our fleet to provide a defined amount of capacity to the system."

Bobb says the railroad is working to add more equipment and crews to handle the harvest rush. That's little comfort for elevator managers like Keith Brandt.

We're ... sick and tired of Burlington Northern seemingly being surprised that a harvest occurs every fall.
- U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

"The railroads want to spread this hauling out over a length of time to just meet their needs," says Brandt. "Are we going to have a problem when we have a major exporter come to us and want to buy it, and we don't have the ability to move it to them when we need it?"

Brandt says it's a tough situtation for elevator operators who work on thin profit margins. Brandt is not alone in his frustrations. U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., says the problem is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad has no competition.

"We're all of us getting sick and tired of Burlington Northern seemingly being surprised that a harvest occurs every fall," says Pomeroy.

Before deregulation, five major carriers operated in the state. Today there are only two. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe is the only railroad to operate statewide.

Pomeroy says it might be time for the government to take a more active role in regulating the railroads.

"We've got to put more teeth into the Surface Transportation Board," says Pomeroy. "(We need) to try and stiffen their spine a little bit, to represent the public -- which, in this case, is farmers trying to move their grain."

Pomeroy says future mergers between railroads should be put on hold, until the carriers' service improves.

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