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Grain trains from North Dakota almost a month behind schedule

A BNSF train approaches a pedestrian crossing Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, near Broadway in Fargo, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

DICKINSON, N.D. -- North Dakota's lone U.S. representative has released a BNSF Railway report that says rail cars carrying grain from North Dakota are almost a month behind schedule.

The report, dated May 2, indicates 15,846 cars were running on average 26.6 days late. The numbers exceeded the goal of past-due cars, set at 11,797 cars, by more than 34 percent, according to the report. BNSF also set a goal to be 21 days behind, but that goal was not met.

"There is a little bit of good news that they are gaining, but the bad news is they haven't reached their goal," said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

Montana had 3,038 cars past due with 32.5 average days late as of May 1, according to a BNSF podcast. Minnesota had 1,848 cars late with an average 19.8 days behind.

Cramer said the goals were set in February, adding that while it is frustrating, the railway company is making progress.

"We will continue to push forward to make improvements," said John Miller, group vice president of agricultural products for BNSF. "Gains may be bumpy and uneven, but we will continue to gradually improve service."

The release of the document comes after heavy criticism of BNSF, which North Dakota producers say is favoring the oil and gas industry. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth has said previously that is not the case.

Cramer said he has made it his mission to follow this issue and keep North Dakota residents informed on the progress and problems farmers face as a result of rail congestion.

"In the interest of keeping agriculture producers and other affected citizens informed, I am releasing this new data on the rail delays in our regions," Cramer wrote in an email Thursday. "We should be encouraged by the progress being made while continuing to insist on a restoration of normal, timely service."

Another BNSF report to customers indicated overall on-time performance improved 1 percent for the week ending April 29 from the week before. Trains holding, which is the number of trains waiting due to congestion, remained stable.

But agricultural volumes have increased, according to BNSF. The volume increased by 4 percent during the week ending April 26, the highest weekly volume since Oct. 13. April also carried the most grain since October.

"The good news is that volumes moved by BNSF are not only improving overall, but for agricultural performance as well," Miller said. "Our last two weeks have seen ag volumes well over 21,000 units per week on BNSF, easily the best two weeks since October 2013."

BNSF is also shipping more than 2,500 units of fertilizer, the most it has since May 2013, Miller said.

"Those are some pretty high numbers," Cramer said, adding that BNSF is gaining ground on the long-term capital investment.

"They have moved a lot of grain in the last couple of weeks, so that is also positive," Cramer said. "Clearly we are not out of the woods, but it's good."

The report indicates BNSF intends to hire 5,000 people systemwide by the end of the year to alleviate the delays. As of Friday, BNSF had added 2,100 employees.

"They are gaining nicely on that part," Cramer said, adding that he has always been confident that BNSF would follow through on its goals.

The report also indicated BNSF hopes to have 5,000 cars by the end of the year. The expansion capital is set to cost $900 million. Replacement and maintenance capital is expected to cost $2.3 billion.

Miller said BNSF was confident that it would get its product to market.

"As we come into the month of May, planting will be in full swing for many of our customers in the next couple of weeks, so we continue to focus on unit fertilizer trains across the system, understanding the critical need for these nutrients and to move them quickly," Miller said.

Cramer added he has talked to farmers that said they are getting their product. While the progress may appear slow, BNSF is working toward its goals, which gives everyone some hope, he added.

"This has been one of those trust-and-verify relationships," Cramer said. "To their credit -- and BNSF, it is a very easy sport to pick on, and I have been as vocal as anyone when they've had it coming -- these long-term capital investments, they have always done what they said they are going to do."

The delays are a "day-to-day problem" producers have to deal with, Cramer said, but he believes in two to three years, producers could see robust railways that will be good for moving not only oil and grain, but any products that need to be shipped out of state.

"We're going to have a great transportation system. It's just that over the next two years, that transition is painful," he said. "It's really similar to road construction in North Dakota. It's painful to go through, but when it's done it's fantastic.

"They are making progress in the short term, and I'm very optimistic in the long term."