KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — The effects of wintry weather slowed grain transportation by rail to a crawl across the upper half of the United States this week, grain traders and millers said. Railroads issued statements detailing a broad range of service challenges due to weather.
“Grain loading is at a standstill” in western areas of hard red winter wheat production areas, a trader said Feb. 16. Overnight temperatures were in the teens in Oklahoma and eastern Colorado, and in the single digits in western Kansas, according to Weather Underground.
Elsewhere, the frost-freeze temperature map showed low-single-digit and below-zero temperatures from the northern Plains and Upper Midwest through the Central states of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
Loaded trains were at times stationary for extended periods, millers said, due to a variety of potential factors, including locomotive power struggles, the difficulty of keeping rail car brakes aired, and power outages preventing switches from performing as intended.
“The record cold temperatures and significant snow that have been experienced across our North Region and stretching deep into Texas and parts of the Gulf Coast have significantly impacted network operations,” the BNSF railroad said. “In Texas, many trains are currently holding due to widespread power outages and road closures that have affected our ability to move train crews and other personnel.”
The following information pertains to grain transportation activity prior to the onset of extended cold temperatures across the United States:
Total US carloads and intermodal units in the week ended Feb. 13 totaled 480,483, up 0.3% from the same week a year earlier, according to the American Association of Railroads. Grain was one of four carload commodity groups behind that increase. Grain carloads in that week totaled 22,823, up 25% from the same week in 2020, bringing 2021 cumulative grain carloads to 158,814, up 35% from the same period in 2020.
The US average weekly grain carloads in 2021 was 26,469. The other three US commodity groups showing year-over-year carload increases are forest products, chemicals and “other.”
Canadian grain carloads in the week ended Feb. 13 totaled 7,942, up 31% from the same week a year earlier, bringing 2021 cumulative grain carloads to 59,720, up 44% from the same period in 2020, for a weekly average of 9,953 carloads. Two other carload commodity groups, coal and farm products and food excluding grain, showed year-over year increases.
Mexican grain carloads in the week ended Feb. 13 totaled 1,809, down 19% from the same week a year earlier, bringing cumulative 2021 grain carloads to 10,369, down 20% from the same period in 2020, for an average of 1,728 carloads per week.
North American grain carloads for the week totaled 32,574, up 23% from the same week a year earlier, bringing 2021 cumulative grain carloads to 228,903, up 33% from the same period in 2020, according to the AAR. Grain was the only carload commodity group to show a weekly year-over-year increase, although grain, coal, forest products and farm products and food excluding grain all showed cumulative increases for the year to date.
Barge grain movements for the week ended Feb. 6 totaled 793,208 tons, down 23% from the previous week, but up 45% compared with the same period last year, according to data from the US Army Corps of Engineers.
During that week, 476 grain barges moved down river, a decline of 142 barges from the prior week. In New Orleans, 1,046 grain barges were unloaded, a 17% increase from the previous week, according to the Corps and USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Oceangoing grain vessels loaded in the US Gulf in the week ended Feb. 4 totaled 45, up 50% from the same period last year. The rate for shipping one tonne of grain from the Gulf to Japan was $46.75, 1% higher than the previous week. The rate from the Pacific Northwest to Japan was $26.75 per tonne, unchanged from the previous week, the AMS said.
Grain trucking activity this week has been slowed by wintry weather that has included high winds, blowing snow, single-digit temperatures and icy roads. Loading and unloading at various origins and destinations from the Rocky Mountains to the eastern seaboard have been affected. Truck transportation in some areas, such the southern Plains of Oklahoma and Texas have been hindered by atypical cold temperatures, as trucks were not set up to handle them, a byproducts commodity trader said. Also, several origins and destinations were without power, preventing loading and unloading, forcing logistics managers to explore alternate places to unload or store commodities.
The US average diesel fuel price in the week ended Feb. 8 was $2.801 per gallon, up 6.3¢ from the previous week, but 10.9¢ below the same week in 2020 according to the US Department of Energy.