Market Matters Blog

Barge Movement Slow as River Problems Persist; Rail Freight Moves Higher

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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(Chart courtesy USDA)

Three tows were reportedly grounded Dec. 14 in the St. Louis Harbor due to low water. The barges and tows were refloated, but the Mississippi River was expected to remain closed until Monday, Dec. 15, so the Corps could dredge the area. Not much further south down river, traffic is also being hampered by phase 2 of the rock removal near Thebes, Ill., which began December 10. According to a Dec. 10 press release from the Army Corps of Engineers, "Contractors working for the Corps will remove approximately 2,800 cubic yards of rock as a permanent improvement to the navigation channel over the next few months, with options for additional removal in future years. The rock removal project continues work begun last year when river levels dipped to near-record lows from St. Louis south to the Ohio River confluence." The Corps is working with the Coast Guard to help minimize interruptions to traffic while the work is done during the day. So far the Corps has placed no-wake restrictions on vessels and tows are only allowed a 15-barge maximum through that area.

Besides the dredging at St. Louis and the rock removal at Thebes causing slowdowns, sources reported that while the northern parts of the Upper Mississippi River are closed for the winter, icing has become problematic in the middle areas of the UMR and parts of the Illinois River due to extreme cold during the first part of December. Because of the ice and lack of precipitation the last two weeks, water levels have dropped below zero gauge between St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. As of Monday, December 23, the river level at St. Louis was at -0.5 feet and is expected to drop to -3 feet by January 5 without more moisture to replenish it. USDA's Grain Transportation report stated, "Barge movements for the first two weeks of December averaged 765,000 tons per week, lower than the weekly average of 890,000 tons for the last half of November." River conditions in the Ohio River and south of Cairo to the Gulf are in good condition with water levels not posing any threats to traffic. Water levels in the Gulf harbors at Baton Rouge and New Orleans are also in good shape for barges and ocean going vessels.

Logistics on land are not much better. Slow runtimes in the Northern Plains have pushed spring wheat basis higher and cash basis for dark northern spring wheat delivered to the PNW jumped 20 cents for the week ended December 20. Besides the cold weather and demand for railcars thanks to an abundant harvest of corn and soybeans, the traffic on the U.S. railways has to compete with oil cars moving out of North Dakota which, according to some rail shippers, take precedence over the grain cars. Sources report that shuttle runtimes have gone from three turns per month down to two turns per month and that has sent the secondary freight market to historical high levels.

USDA reported that for the week ended December 12, the average bid/offers for December non-shuttle secondary were $594 above tariff, which was up $106.50 from last week and $594 higher than last year at this time. The average shuttle bids/offers were $1,950 per car above tariff, which was up $387.50 from last week and $1,925 higher than last year. There were reports from shippers that shuttle freight traded as high as $3,000 to $4,000 per car in the past few weeks and many shippers have backed away from the high prices with some rolling freight into January at premiums of $1,000 or more. Logistics in Canada remain impaired and with the record canola and wheat harvest there waiting to move, many believe it could be spring before the situation improves.


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