Market Matters Blog

Rail Logistics Improve But Not in Upper Midwest

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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The first saltie of the season, Diana, docked at a CHS elevator in Superior, Wis., ready to load grain. (Photo courtesy Robert Welton)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (DTN) -- BNSF Vice President John Miller opened his latest podcast with the good news: The railroad had just completed its best two weeks since mid-fall of 2013.

"The BNSF has seen its best two weeks since October of 2013," he said in the May 1 podcast. "Fertilizer movement has seen its best two weeks since May of 2013 with supplies of urea making their way into the upper Midwest as farmers head in to the fields. We are confident that we will get fertilizer to the marketplace." The fertilizer report for May 2 sent to the STB can be read here:…

Miller added train velocity was 9% faster so far in May than it was in April. Shuttle turns per month showed an improvement with an increase to the PNW of 2.5 TPM versus the 2.0 TPM from recent weeks. System wide, shuttle TPM is up to 2.6 to all destinations.

Then the bad news. Overall, smaller units and single cars owed in the U.S increased with 14,451 cars owed with days late at 26.4 versus 14,335 and 25.7 one week ago.

"While gains may be bumpy and uneven, we continue to gradually improve service," Miller assured listeners.

Customers in North Dakota and Minnesota may not agree. Minnesota was owed 1,848 cars, which was a record high for cars owed in the state. Cars were on average 19.8 days late, which set the state back to late February numbers. Cars owed in North Dakota increased to 7,257 versus 7,101 one week ago with average days late at 25.5. A shipper in North Dakota said the BN was about 8 1/2 weeks behind at his station. His elevator is a 26- to 52-car unit and single car shipper and he is frustrated his elevator is not a priority because he is not a shuttle loader. A full elevator means farmers are unable to haul grain and instead have to leave it in their bins on the farm, leaving some farmers without available cash for spring's work.


The Canadian Pacific Railroad backlog seems to be stabilizing slowly. "CP is making continuous progress toward improved service levels," CP said on its website. "For the weeks ending May 2 vs. April 25, overall terminal dwell remained steady week over week with a 28% improvement at Chicago. Canadian terminal dwell remains stable. Train speeds have leveled out across the network. The new train pair implemented to support grain and fertilizer service between Canada and the U.S. has improved transits by 24 to 48 hours."

There is no mention of cars owed to CP shippers in the report, but some say that number is "in the neighborhood of 25,000 cars system wide." The full service announcement can be read here:…

"This week's Statistics Canada March 31 grain stocks report shed light on the combined impact of a record crop on the prairies combined with the challenging rail freight situation faced over the winter," DTN Canadian Grains Analyst Cliff Jamieson said. "Grain stocks in Canada as of March 31 surged 13.9 million metric tons, or roughly 40% from year-ago levels, with stocks highly concentrated on Prairie farms. Bill C-30, the Canadian government's answer to rail regulation, has been sent to the Senate for approval, with the process delayed until Tuesday."

"Meanwhile, some farm groups continue to speak out regarding the short-comings of this bill, suggesting it is a good "first step." Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association, reported to the Calgary Herald that missing is the ability to set volume requirements independently by corridor. He states that elevators continue to be limited in movement to the U.S. as well as eastern Canada."

"Despite a boost in movement to the west coast ports of Vancouver and Prince George in recent weeks, one unconfirmed social media communication stated that there are 26 vessels waiting in Vancouver and 7 more in Prince Rupert."


On May 6, NOAA reported that while 16% of the Great Lakes are still ice covered, Lake Superior is nearly 40% of that coverage. In contrast, normal ice coverage for this time of the year is 3% for the Great Lakes. There are still reports of ice being pushed on shore, causing damage to houses in northern Minnesota and Michigan.

The good news is that after encountering significant ice issues in transiting Lake Superior, the arrival of the Port of Duluth-Superior's first saltie of the season, Diana, took place Wednesday night at 23:45 CDT. The 453-foot ship will load approximately 11,550 metric tons of durum wheat at the CHS elevator in Superior before departing for Algeria.

"We witnessed the earliest arrival on record for a first saltie of the season last year: March 30, 2013. This year, we're a week into May and just hitting that milestone," said Adele Yorde, PR manager for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "While this will go down as the latest on record, the ice-encrusted start to the season can't dampen enthusiasm here in the Twin Ports. On a historical note, until this week, the latest arrival of this port's first saltie had been May 3, which happened in 1959 when the Ramon de Larrinaga arrived in Duluth -- the very first saltie to have transited the St. Lawrence Seaway after it opened that year."

Yorde added, "Now that commercial navigation is almost back to normal on the Great Lakes, there are another half-dozen salties queued up and headed to Duluth-Superior to load wheat and beet pulp pellets this next week."

This is a video of all ship traffic for May 7, 2014, including the arrival of Diana:…

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