Railroads have moved the huge 2014 fall harvest in a timely manner due in part to capital investments by the railroads, an extended harvest, and farmers storing a larger share of their grain, according to a survey conducted by the Soy Transportation Coalition and the University of Minnesota.
While improvements are still needed, the survey released this week concluded that service so far has been better than a year ago as 70% of the surveyed grain handling facilities reported faster railroad cycle times than a year ago, 48% had no "past-due" rail orders, and 88% said storage pressure was the same, less or much less than a year ago.
"It becomes quickly evident that rail service for the 2014 harvest has thus far been a pleasant surprise," Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said of the survey results. "There are certainly opportunities for improvement moving forward, but railroads serving this particular area of the country should be commended for their performance up to this point."
The survey period ran from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5 and focused on North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska, the four states that have few transportation alternatives and were hit particularly hard by rail service problems last year. The survey is ongoing and will conclude in March.
It was not all good news, about 60% of the grain facilities surveyed reported some rail service delays and diminished storage capacity in the 2014 harvest.
Mild harvest-time weather helped rail shipments. Rail service will continue to be monitored in the coming months when winter weather becomes more severe. A large share of last year's rail service problems was due to the frigid winter, which forced railroads to run shorter trains at slower speeds.
BNSF Railway, which serves much of the survey area, has spent billions to add track, cars, engines and crews. That apparently was evident in the survey in which respondents praised the railroad for this year's improved service.
"The amount of additional investment being deployed by U.S. railroads is substantial," Steenhoek said.