Federal board looking to update rules on reporting information on agriculture rail shipments

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board is working on improving reporting rules that should give North Dakota grain producers and others better information on rail shipments, the agency's head said Monday.

The board in October issued an order requiring railways to give more details on shipping, following a hearing in Fargo with producers who were worried about getting their crops from a record harvest to market in a timely fashion. The order included data on average speeds, the weekly number of grain cards ordered and overdue and the number of cars cancelled by state.

Board Chairman Daniel Elliott, who was part Monday's panel discussion at a conference on agriculture shipping issues, said people have interpreted the order differently and that the rules need to be clearer and more specific.

"I think things have improved, but there's a lot of work to be done," Elliott said. "We are in the process of getting you better information."

John Miller, a BNSF Railway vice president, said after the discussion that his company has been "thoughtful about communicating directly" with its customers and filing the necessary paperwork with the government.

"We have complied from day one exactly what they've asked for and exactly how that can be used," Miller said of the federal order.

Miller said BNSF is trying to be "more predictable and more consistent" with its orders, but it's difficult to predict market factors. He noted that the issue was especially tense two months ago when crop premiums were high, but prices have since collapsed.

"Where are we going to be six months from now? What's the marketing going to be like on the ag side?" Miller said. "I don't know."

Eluned Jones, head of business and agricultural economics at South Dakota State University, said rules can help, but it's more important to solve problems and avoid legislation.

"The fact you have this many leaders in all parts of the economy who are sitting in here the room together, from producers all the way through to the politicians, it tells you how important this is, but it also tells you that people who are sitting here are in it for the long term," she said.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven, who sponsored the conference along with researchers from North Dakota State University, said the key to ending shipping delays is building a bigger rail system.

"Agriculture shipment delays have had crippling effects on some of the hardest-working folks in our country but it really speaks to the larger issue of a transportation system that has failed to live up to expectations," Heitkamp said.