Market Matters Blog
Mary Kennedy DTN Basis Analyst

Friday 06/06/14

Past-Due Rail Cars Arriving Too Fast For Some Elevators

OMAHA (DTN) -- It may be a case of be careful what you wish for.

Lake Superior June 5th, 2014. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

Many North Dakota elevators waited in frustration for rail cars to load out grain during the past four months, but some are now reporting BNSF is inundating them with empties. One elevator operator reported he is still trying to unload fertilizer cars currently sitting at his siding. He will end up loading more cars this month than he has all year.

Another elevator operator said there is not enough room on his track for all the cars that are suddenly arriving. While both elevators are grateful that past-due orders are starting to get filled, one manager commented that the current situation is "getting ugly."

According to the BNSF May 30 podcast, the system-wide average for past-due cars was 13,050 vs. 14,069 the prior week and average days late was 28.6 vs. 27.9 the prior week. Past-due cars in North Dakota were 6,703 vs. 6,839 the prior week; Montana cars past due were 2,833 vs. 3,258 prior week; Minnesota cars past due were 1,505 vs. 1,719 the prior week; and South Dakota cars past due were at 369 vs. 435 prior week.

Shuttle turns per month (TPM) were slightly lower with the average at 2.3 TPM vs. 2.5 the prior week. The turn time to the PNW was lower at 2.3 TPM vs. 2.5 last week. Some of that can be attributed to track improvements, but also due to soft track beds.

"As we continue our focus on improving service, seasonal weather is causing washouts and some instances of soft track conditions along our Northern Transcon as the ground frost caused by this year's extreme winter weather begins to thaw," said John Miller, BNSF group vice president of agricultural products in the podcast. "As always, we are proactively monitoring all our lines to ensure minimal impacts to service and are performing expedited maintenance to keep these lines in service. Customers can expect to experience occasional delays and temporary interruptions, particularly for freight moving across a couple of key sections of the railroad between Minot and Grand Forks, N.D., and between Minot and Dilworth, Minn., as BNSF crews repair tracks that are impacted by frost heaves."

The CN Railway sent out a similar bulletin on June 4 stating, "As a result of unusually warm temperatures and high water levels, trains running along the Sprague and Fort Frances subdivisions remain subject to speed restrictions. Trains running between Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Ranier, Minn., in either direction are now operating at slower track speeds than normal. In addition, a portion of track near Ash Lake, Minn., south of Ranier on the Rainy subdivision, was found to be washed out on Saturday evening. The washout, which was repaired as of 1900 hours CDT on Sunday, June 1, has caused additional delays to traffic in the area. CN has run a number of trains via an alternate path north of the Great Lakes, however customers should expect that delays to affected traffic continue at this time."

The Canadian Pacific railroad reported in their June 3 service update, "Yard dwell is stable and shipments moving per plan. Train speeds improved slightly, continuing to exceed 2013 levels. There are no service issues in both Canadian corridors, but Chicago remains at Alert Level 1 and CP is operating normally with heavy inbound volumes from offline carriers."

Some CP shippers in the U.S. continue to wait for past-due cars along the northern tier of North Dakota with one elevator operator concerned he will not be able to load out old-crop wheat in time for the harvest.

BARGE GRAIN MOVEMENTS TO THE GULF HIGHER; CORN LEADING THE PACK

According to USDA's weekly Grain Transportation report, "During the week ending May 31, barge grain movements totaled 853,928 tons -- 28.7% higher than the previous week and 158.5% higher than the same period last year."

Corn continues to lead the way and river basis levels have been strong. Soybean movement down river actually improved that week as shipments to Asia increased. But soybeans heading to the Gulf will more than likely become flat due to the seasonal slowdown because of the large Brazil crop.

There were 549 grain barges that moved down river, which is 30% higher than the prior week and barge movements on the Mississippi River at Locks 27 in Granite City were up 143.7% from last year and 54.7% higher than the three-year average.

So far, high water has not been a serious issue for barge traffic, but due to recent heavy rains in the Midwest, river levels at St. Louis and Cairo are expected to rise by this weekend. Levels in St. Louis on June 5 were at 16.51 feet and are expected to rise to at least 22.8 feet by Sunday. Flood stage is 30 feet. On the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill., water levels on June 5 were at 25.11 feet and are expected to rise to 29 feet by the weekend. Flood stage is 40 feet. Rising water levels may slow barges if high-water restrictions are put in place by the Corps of Engineers, which would slow the speed at which barges could travel.

WINTER SAYS GOODBYE UP NORTH

Ice was finally gone from Lake Superior on June 5, according to NOAA. According to the ice analysis by the GLSEA on Thursday, there was zero % ice concentration on the Great Lakes. George Leshkevich, physical scientist at NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. "We haven't seen this before, at least this far into June."

"We saw the ice as early as Nov. 25 and now into June," Leshkevich said. "In terms of duration I would think it's up there, if not at the top of the chart" in the historic record.

While the last day of ice coverage is considered to be a new record for Lake Superior, oddly enough, the total ice coverage this past winter was not. Lake Superior was almost 96% covered with ice in early March, making it the fourth-highest ice cover total; in March 1977, Lake Superior was 100% ice covered. Total ice coverage for the Great Lakes in March was 92.2%, the second highest in 40 years of record-keeping.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

Follow Mary Kennedy on Twitter @MaryCKenn

(CZ/SK)

Posted at 11:51AM CDT 06/06/14 by Mary Kennedy
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