Rail bottlenecks in the U.S. are not improving, and in some cases, growing more severe. Feed users in California and the Southwest are having issues sourcing grain, with some reporting they are paying $3 over the CBOT price to secure grain by truck. Not only are feed users on the brink of running out of grain, but there are also concerns the rail issues could grow worse during harvest this fall.
The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) says their members have been seeing issues since late winter and early spring, which then caused the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to hold a hearing in August. While the industry thought the issues would improve by summer, labor issues are not getting better.
“What I’m hearing from our members is fewer equipment issues and that the equipment and engines seem to be not breaking down, but the train times – the amount of time it’s taking to get the trains – and the reliability of receiving them is still quite a problem in in quite a few areas of the country,” says Mike Seyfert, President and CEO of NGFA.
Fears of Running Out of Feed
According to Trains.com, Foster Farms, the largest chicken producer in the western U.S., asked federal regulators to issue an emergency service order last week that would direct Union Pacific to prioritize corn shipments that thousands of dairy cattle and millions of chickens and turkeys depend upon.
”The point has been reached when millions of chickens will be killed and other livestock will suffer because of UP’s service failures,” Foster Farms wrote in its request to the Surface Transportation Board this week.
Seyfert says the emergency order shows the seriousness of the issue.
“At times in in the past several months, we have heard from more than one member that has had severe difficulty getting feed, sometimes being within several hours of being short,” says Seyfert.
While a combination of weather, supply chain issues and other factors are creating the severe scenario, the main issue seems to revolve around labor. According to NGFA, railroads were already down about 25% in staffing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, problems during the pandemic only exacerbated the labor issue.
Ken Erikson, senior vice president at S&P Global Fuels, Chemicals and Resource Solutions Group, says the training required to bring employees back on the railroad is something that takes time, similar to what airlines are experiencing with pilots and other staff.
“The railroads had on a mandated requirement, instituted position railroad systems out there for precision scheduled railroads, part of the requirements to meet for the federal government,” says Erkison. “So, they thought they didn’t need as much crews if they can automate some things or be able to have greater visibility and trains. Well, the reality is they got so far behind they had furloughed a lot of crew members. And you just can’t bring crews back overnight without adequate training and to bring equipment back that’s offline to get a condition again. These things take long lead times.”
Congress Urges STB to Take Action
This week, 51 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter and sent to the STB regarding issues with the rail system in the U.S.. The letter asked STB to continue to work through the current rail issues with all stakeholders in order to address short-term challenges and find a resolution.
“On behalf of our constituents and farmers around the country, we write regarding poor rail service, which has limited fertilizer shipments, among other essential agricultural inputs and commodities, including grain and feed,” the letter stated.
“At a time when global fertilizer supplies and global crop production are highly disrupted, imposing shipping curtailments on fertilizer inputs and grain, as recently proposed by Union Pacific, will cause major supply chain disruptions, hurt American farmers, and exacerbate the food crisis considerably. We must ensure critical commodities reach essential industries and workers, such as America’s farmers, who are essential to feeding our nation and the world. Food is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such,” the 51 members wrote in the letter.
The Senate sent a similar letter to the STB in May.
More Issues Due to Labor Discussions/Disputes?
Another issue with labor are union and other labor discussions and disputes. Erikson points out the International Longshore and Warehouse Contract with Pacific Maritime Association expires Friday, July 1. Erikson says the two parties have been negotiating and committed to stay working, there could be other ripple effects.
“They’ve committed to stay working, but what we’ve seen as the diversion of cargo moving to the West Coast or to the U.S. Center Gulf, areas that move a lot of cargo, but also you have requirements and equipment demand to other regions that hasn’t been there. So now you move the problem elsewhere,” says Erikson.
Ahead of Friday’s expiration, the L.A. port chief sees no disruptions on eve of contract lapsing. Farm Journal Washington correspondent Jim Wiesemeyer reports the head of the US’ busiest port said he doesn’t foresee strikes at about 30 West Coast maritime hubs even as the labor contract for 22,000 dockworkers is about to lapse without a new deal. “Anything’s possible, but it will not happen,” Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said Wednesday.
The labor issues could be far from over, as the four major rail lines are in the middle of a labor dispute with the unions. With the timeline on the table today, there are concerns those issue could grow more severe and possibly cause even more rail issues during the fall months, which is a busy time with harvest.
“They’re currently in a 30 day cooling off period, where they’re no longer working on arbitration,” Seyfert explains. “There’s some actions the President can take in mid-July to appoint a board, which can then make some recommendations that can be acted on. There’s 30 days there. Then, there’s 30 days for the railroads and in the labor to work together to determine to accept or not accept that.
Once we get into mid-September, there’s also a risk of some labor issues, even labor stoppage on some of the rail lines. And so getting these things addressed now and all of us working together before we get particularly into that fall harvest, where we’ve really never been in a situation where a reliable and resilient rail service is more important than it is.”
Seyfert says there have been recommendations made to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) regarding more transparent reporting by the railroad, as well as a request for railroads to submit service plans. There are also additional steps Congress could take to help resolve a portion of the rail bottlenecks.