eNews • December 11, 2014
Promoting a Cost-Effective, Reliable and Competitive Transportation System

STC analysis monitors rail performance for 2014 harvest

The Soy Transportation Coalition (STC) is working with the University of Minnesota on a research project, “2014 Harvest: Attaching a Garden Hose to a Fire Hydrant.” The STC on December 8th released the results from the most recent survey period of November 21 - December 5.

Summary: December 8th Rail Service Results

“In reviewing the survey responses from the participating grain receiving locations, it becomes quickly evident that rail service for the 2014 harvest has thus far been a pleasant surprise,” explains Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. “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.”

As reported in the most recent update, 70 percent of participating grain handling facilities report that cycle times for railroads are faster than a year ago; 48 percent recorded no rail orders as past due; no respondents reported “much more” storage pressure at their facilities; and only 11 percent reported “more” pressure on storage. 88 percent responded that storage pressure was “the same,” “less,” or “much less.”

However, 60 percent of grain receiving facilities did claim to have experienced rail service delays and diminishing storage capacity in response to the 2014 harvest.

Based on the feedback from the survey participants, the overall favorable performance of the railroads in the analyzed area of the country can be attributed to the following:

  • An elongated harvest season. Given how the 2014 harvest occurred over a more elongated period of time, railroads were better able to adjust to the volumes produced by farmers. Historically, when the harvest occurs over a more condensed
  • Railroads have responded to demand. “The railroads, without question, have responded to the increased demand and the recent service challenges in this area of the country with an aggressive degree of new investment in locomotive power, track, and personnel,” explains Steenhoek. “By any measurement, the amount of additional investment being deployed by U.S. railroads is substantial.” One of the survey participants echoed, “Things have improved very well on the (BNSF). They have done what they said they were going to do with people, power, and infrastructure, and in a more timely fashion than I felt they would be able to do.”
  • Farmers storing grain. Due to the recent retreat in commodity prices, farmers have elected to store more of their soybeans and grain. This has mitigated some pressure thus far on rail demand. One survey participant responded, “There is available freight today as (the) farmer is not moving; if they all wait to move it in a three month window, (rail) prices will go up again.” Another offered, “Increased use of on farm storage due to lower grain prices is making BNSF look better than they are...”
  • Favorable weather. While there has been some significant snowfall and cold temperatures over the past couple months, the weather overall has been favorable for transporting soybeans and grain in the surveyed areas. The STC analysis will continue to survey grain receiving locations into March of 2015 in order to monitor how railroads continue to serve agriculture if and when severe winter weather occurs.
  • More modest harvest volumes than anticipated. While the 2014 harvest will be regarded as significant and perhaps historic, a number of the surveyed areas have reported more modest volumes than earlier anticipated. Survey respondents mentioned “poorer crops” in certain areas and the harvest not “as expected.”

“The Soy Transportation Coalition will continue to monitor rail performance over the next few months,” says Steenhoek. “We have been overall pleased with the service up this point in this area of the country. We are hopeful this will continue. Farmer profitability depends on it.”

The third bi-weekly survey was disseminated to participants on December 5. The results will be made available on Monday, December 22.

The full results of the bi-weekly survey can be accessed at www.soytransportation.org.

Project Description:

While transportation concerns throughout much of 2014 have been evident throughout the country, a particular region - North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska - experienced particular hardship over the past year due to having more limited access to alternative transportation providers and modes. Most of these areas solely rely on freight rail. As a result, the supply/demand transportation imbalance had a more punitive effect on agriculture and individual farmers in these regions than other areas of the country.

Given the acute rail service challenges throughout much of 2014 and given the projected record 2014 harvest, widespread concern regarding rail performance was expressed by grain handlers and farmers in the weeks and months preceding the 2014 harvest.

The research project seeks to monitor and document rail service for the 2014 harvest in areas of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The project will identify and estimate the impact of rail service on the profitability of each state’s agricultural industry and individual farmers.

A component of the research is a bi-weekly survey of 42 grain receiving locations in these states. The surveys began in early November and will extend to March of 2015. Completed anonymously, the survey is comprised of the following questions:

  1. If you load shuttle trains, what is the current number of cycles/turns per month?
  2. Is your cycle time/turns faster or slower than one year ago?
  3. How many days past due is your oldest open order for railcars?
  4. How many railcar orders are past due (or passed order date)?
  5. What percent of your permanent storage capacity remains open?
  6. If your permanent storage is full, are you creating ground piles or using bunkers, bags and/or other forms of temporary storage?
  7. Due to a lack of storage, have you closed your truck dumps to farmers?
  8. If so, how long have your dumps been closed?
  9. Is there more or less pressure on storage capacity since the last survey?
  10. Have you experienced rail service delays and diminishing storage capacity?
  11. If experiencing rail service delays and diminishing storage capacity, estimate the impact on your local basis for each grain handled at your facility.
  12. What are spot prices on rail freight that you can purchase today?

The Soy Transportation Coalition is comprised of thirteen state soybean boards, the American Soybean Association, and the United Soybean Board. The National Grain and Feed Association and the National Oilseed Processors Association serve as ex-officio members of the organization.

Soy Transportation Coalition
1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy., Ankeny, Iowa 50023
Phone: (515) 727-0665 Fax (515) 251-8657
Email msteenhoek@soytransportation.org
Web www.soytransportation.org

Funded by the Soybean Checkoff