The shipping delays that plagued railroad networks last year have improved amid increases in staffing, though Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is calling for more action from the Surface Transportation Board to address what he calls “inadequate” and “unreliable” service from railroad companies. 

Class I railroads, the country's largest, fell behind in fulfilling shipping orders last spring as they struggled to fill their workforce, which had been trimmed in 2020 due to drops in container traffic. They spent much of last year trying to hire more staff, offering thousand-dollar bonuses, vacation buybacks and extra travel allowances. 

Those efforts appear to have paid off. According to the STB, the total number of train and engine staff for each train for seven class I railroads — BNSF, CSX, Canadian National, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, the Soo Line Railroad, and Union Pacific — was at 51,556 in April, nearly 9,000 more employees than in June 2020.

Shipping networks have seen some improvements with the additional staff and some other measures railroads have put in place to ease delays, according to Soy Transportation Coalition executive director Mike Steenhoek. The unweighted average dwell time for Class I railroads at origin for unit train shipments was 20.8 hours as of May 24, compared to 42.3 hours last April.

“The consensus that I continue to hear from agricultural shippers is that the scenario is better now than it was over the last couple of years,” Steenhoek told Agri-Pulse. “Railroads are making improvements on their hiring, bringing more of their locomotive power into operation. The surge in freight movement is certainly not like it was in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, so that’s helped as well.”

Approximately 940 loaded grain cars had not moved in 48 hours or more as of May 24, compared to 2,380 grain cars last April. Some 231 grain car orders that were requested 11 or more days previous were unfilled as of May 24; that figure was 9,492 in April 2022.

“It’s definitely a lot better than where it was,” Max Fisher, the chief economist and treasurer at the National Grain and Feed Association, said of rail service. “I’m not going to say that there isn’t still room for improvement. A lot of our ag shipper members, of course, would say that things still aren’t where they’d like to see them, but they are a lot better.”

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Vilsack, in a May 12 letter to STB members, said he was pleased with the board’s actions to improve delays last year, which included collecting more service data, streamlining rate review in certain cases and holding a hearing on Union Pacific’s use of embargoes. He did express concern that more problems would result from the railroad industry’s use of precision-scheduled railroading, which he said “does not leave sufficient buffer in labor and assets for railroads to be able to handle unexpected spikes in demand.”

“There is more work to be done,” Vilsack wrote.

Tom_Vilsack_SenateAg_Approiations_Hearing_2023_2.jpgAg Secretary Tom VilsackIn his letter, Vilsack called for the board to consider allowing private railcar use, allowing reciprocal switching — or giving shippers the ability to utilize other nearby carriers instead of their main rail network — and providing additional clarity on railroads’ common carrier obligation.

Fisher said NGFA also believes steps need to be taken in Congress to clarify the common carrier obligation, which requires railroads to provide "transportation or service on reasonable request.” It can be difficult to discern what is “reasonable,” he said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., introduced a bill last year that would establish criteria for the STB to consider when determining whether a rail carrier has violated its common carrier obligation. Fisher said NGFA hopes to see “an appetite to take up that bill both in the Senate and the House and move it forward.”

“We think that would help shippers quite a bit to be able to have a leg to stand on whenever they feel like there’s some real service challenges that have gone too far,” Fisher said. 

In his letter, Vilsack also called on STB to collect “more granular geographic data,” which he said could help pinpoint service issues impacting specific parts of the country.

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