Railroads Blamed For Lack Of Coal, Grain Shipments At Federal Hearing

U.S. Surface Transportation Board Wants Private-Sector Solutions, But Has Power To Direct Cargo Priorities


Railroad executives were on the hot seat on Thursday at a federal regulatory hearing in Fargo, where they were told to improve their shipping of coal and grain before winter.

Wisconsin Public Service Corporation’s Dave Wanner told U.S. Surface Transportation Board members that rail shipments of coal are 50 percent slower than last year.

“Now as a result, we’ve reinstituted our coal conservation measures in mid-August, which is adding to the millions of dollars that these measures have already cost our customers,” said Wanner.

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Wanner said they’re taking electrical production units in Weston and Columbia offline. Pat Mullen, a Minnesota Power spokesman, later said during a phone interview that they’re shutting down four units for three months. He thinks Bakken oil shipments are taking priority over coal shipments.

“I don’t know that they’ve done the best that they can and it’s a challenge for them, I’m sure,” he said. “But I’m sure every industry has their own reason why theirs should be the most important. But this is a really big deal for us and our customers.”

He said BNSF railway has let them know this is a long-term problem.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-Minnesota, said farmers aren’t able to get enough rail service to ship grain.

“There is a lot of nervousness out there within the farming community about what’s going to happen this fall and how big of a problem this is going to be,” said Peterson.

Canadian Pacific Railroad’s John Brooks said they’re doing the best they can juggling cargoes, including a large increase in Bakken oil.

“There’s no excuse and we understand,” said Brooks. “There are orders that are out there that are old and need to be filled and will be filled. But part of the effort has got to be getting our arms around the reality out there of what these are. We realize we created this with our system, not our shippers. It’s not their fault.”

Board Member Ann Begeman said railroads have to meet grain and coal obligations.

“You really haven’t made any progress,” said Begeman. “I know that you’ve been serving customers. You’ve moved like 18,000 carloads since you began reporting. But your timeline didn’t change until your customers started canceling orders.”

The board can decide to issue an emergency order to direct railroads to carry certain cargo, but that power is rarely used. A spokesman said they are hoping for private-sector solutions.

Correction: This article originally attributed a quote to Surface Transportation Board Vice-Chair Deb Miller. The quote should have been attributed to Board Member Ann Begeman.

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