Moving Grains: Barge, Rail Traffic Face Continuing Flood Problems

Barge traffic on the Mississippi River - Port of New Orleans. Photo: USDA

River Levels Continue to Reduce Barge Traffic

Continued rain events, and subsequent highwater, have continued to reduce the amount of barged grain on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. So far this year, 13,194 barges of grain have been unloaded at ports on the lower Mississippi River. This is 15 percent fewer than last year, and 13 percent below the 3-year average. Year-to-date tonnages of down-bound grain, at locking portions of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas Rivers, were 10 million tons, 29 percent lower than last year, and 35 percent lower than the 3-year average.

Upper Mississippi River Locks 12-27 (from Illinois-Wisconsin boarder to St. Louis) are closed due to flooding conditions. St. Louis Harbor is closed until the river level recedes below 38 feet, which is not expected to occur until mid-June. Mississippi River levels at St. Louis are expected to crest at 45.3 feet on June 7, 4.3 feet lower than the record level of 49.6 feet set on August 1, 1993. The Arkansas River is closed due to highwater.

Barge traffic on the lower Mississippi River has been disrupted by reduced tow sizes and transit being restricted under certain bridges to daylight hours only.

Train Operations Affected by Flooding

Railroads are also dealing with the effects of flooding. In a customer announcement dated June 3, Union Pacific Railroad (UP) reported, “severe weather, heavy rainfall and flooding continue to impact operations in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, resulting in…new, prolonged, and expanded subdivision outages.”

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Outages are affecting the route from North Little Rock, AR, to Coffeyville, KS, and the route between Jefferson City and Kansas City, MO. UP has restored service to its Oklahoma City Subdivision. Service is interrupted through Kansas City Southern Railway’s Roadhouse Subdivision (near Louisiana, MO), affecting traffic on its east-west route.

On June 4, Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) alerted customers that its operations to and from Kansas City have been “severely impact[ed].” Traffic is embargoed on inbound traffic to Kansas City but outbound traffic remains open. NS anticipates full track restoration “to take several weeks.”

BNSF Railway has restored service in several locations but is dealing with multiple levee breaches in Missouri, per its May 31 service advisory. While railroads are re-routing and detouring traffic where possible to minimize disruptions, shippers should continue to expect delays in affected areas.

Grain Inspections Lowest Since Early January

For the week ending May 30, total inspections of grain (corn, wheat, and soybeans) for export from all major U.S. export regions reached 1.88 million metric tons (mmt). This amount signifies a 15 percent decrease from the previous week, a 26 percent drop from last year, and a 14 percent decrease from the 3-year average. Wheat inspections increased 12 percent from week to week, but inspections of corn and soybeans decreased 33 and 7 percent, respectively, from the previous week.

Total grain inspections decreased 20 percent from the previous week in the Mississippi Gulf and 8 percent in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). During the last four weeks, inspections have been 18 percent below last year but 2 percent above the 3-year average.

Snapshots by Sector

Export Sales

For the week ending May 23, unshipped balances of wheat, corn, and soybeans totaled 22.9 mmt. This indicates an 18 percent decrease in outstanding sales, compared to the same time last year. Net weekly wheat export sales were .153 mmt, up significantly from the previous week. Net corn export sales totaled .907 mmt, up 105 percent from the previous week. Net soybean export sales totaled .456 mmt, down 15 percent from the past week.

Rail

U.S. Class I railroads originated 22,495 grain carloads for the week ending May 25. This is 3 percent lower than the previous week, up 13 percent from last year, and 4 percent below the 3-year average.

Average June shuttle secondary railcar bids/offers (per car) were $155 above tariff for the week ending May 30. This is $177 above last
week and $124 lower than last year. Average non-shuttle secondary railcar bids/offers were $169 above tariff, down $206 from last year. There were no non-shuttle bids/offers last week.

Barge

For the week ending June 1, barge grain movements totaled 272,950 tons. This is 50 percent lower than the previous week and 72
percent lower than the same period last year.

For the week ending June 1, 153 grain barges moved down river. This is 171 fewer barges than the previous week. There were 443 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans. This is 3 percent higher than the previous week.

Ocean

For the week ending May 30, 26 ocean-going grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf. This is 7 percent less than the same period last year. Fifty-one vessels are expected to be loaded within the next 10 days. This is 6 percent more than the same period last year.

As of May 30, the rate for shipping a metric ton (mt) of grain from the U.S. Gulf to Japan was $44.00. This is 1 percent more than the previous week. The rate from the Pacific Northwest to Japan was $24.25 per mt, a 1 percent increase from the previous week.

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