When baseball players pull off a triple-play, it is considered a great feat. However, when Mother Nature did it, it was a disaster for grain shippers.
The “Polar Vortex” of early 2014 caused a slowdown and sometimes complete stoppage of U.S. rail movement. Ice on Lake Superior started to form Nov. 25, 2013, and didn’t completely melt until June 5, 2014 — a new record. The Port of Duluth/Superior did not see its first saltie (ocean-going ship) until May 7. Ice had already started forming on Lake Superior on Nov. 15, 2014; the lake was ice-free only five and a half months in 2014.
On U.S. rivers, Mother Nature covered the Upper Mississippi and Illinois with so much ice, barges were unable to reach those areas until April, which was also a near record for the opening of a spring shipping season. Ice returned to the Upper Mississippi River in early November, 2014, causing the shipping season to close earlier than normal. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, said the 2014 navigation season was one of the shortest seasons on record.
Even with the winter problems, USACE reported 12.6 million tons of commodities moved down the river system in 2014, up 1.6 million from 2013, as rail delays, car shortages and high secondary freight costs pushed more freight to barges.
A ferocious winter contributed to problems for North American railroads but the consensus was that crude oil shipments were shutting out grain, fertilizer and other commodities and costing farmers millions in lost revenue.
The Surface Transportation Board requested two railroads — CP and BNSF — provide weekly status reports regarding the delivery of fertilizer on their respective railways. BNSF provided a plan to insure timely delivery of fertilizer.
On Sept. 4, 2014, during a nine-hour STB hearing in Fargo, N.D., the same thing was heard over and over: Oil trains are moving every day while grain, coal, fertilizer, and other commodities sit and wait for cars.
Jerry Cope, president of South Dakota Grain and Feed Association, told the STB that the state was expecting crop production 10% to 20% higher than last year, and there was concern the backlog could last through next fall.
Beginning Oct. 22, the STB required all Class I railroads to file weekly data reports, including nonagricultural products.
Service on the railroads is better in December 2014 than it was a year ago, but the overall problems of this year will linger. Heading in to the New Year, rail shippers are nervous that a return to harsh winter conditions could leave them running behind and again incurring steep monetary losses. We can only hope Mother Nature does not give us the cold shoulder again.