Track services

STU ELLIS: Rail services looking to get back on track with grain industry |

Unlike many other towns, Decatur, Illinois sprang from the prairie before 2 railroad tracks crossed. It’s usually the other way around.

But Decatur is recognized as a major rail mecca in the United States with many different rail lines entering, and the Decatur Rail Yard being the largest “flat yard” in the Norfolk Southern system.

It is said to be the largest such facility east of the Mississippi River, but there are no official designations for ownership reasons. Nonetheless, anyone passing through Decatur realizes that rail transportation is an important part of the economy.

If freight trains weren’t coming in and out of Decatur every hour, ADM and Primient would almost come to a standstill. Grain must arrive at processing plants on more than just tractor-trailers and grain products must leave town on more than tractor-trailers and tankers. Wagons are necessary for the operation of these factories.

Although no problems have been reported by Decatur processors, nor about Norfolk Southern in particular, there is a growing frequency of complaints about rail services in other parts of the country.

Recently, the National Grain and Feed Association, which is the trade organization for grain elevators, filed a complaint with the US Surface Transportation Board. NGFA members could not secure efficient delivery of empty cars to load grain, and when they did, the railroad delayed delivery of loaded cars to buyers.

This is a significant issue for the grain industry, which could spill over to farmers if grain elevators cut their bids for grain due to frustrating outbound service.

The recent USDA Grain Transportation Report stated, “Railroads have loaded fewer grain cars so far this calendar year than they did at the same time last year. . According to the Association of American Railroads, as of the end of the week of April 2, year-to-date loads were 8% lower than a year ago.

The rail trade association said its members were struggling with service issues, including bouts of extreme weather. “Additionally, after reducing train and engineering crews by 24% between February 2019 and February 2022 (COVID), all seven Class I railroads are now struggling to cope with national labor shortages. work.”

The latter could be a factor in some of the disputes between the railroads and automobile traffic around Decatur. While the number of trains coming and going may be the same, the trains appear to be longer. This means that level crossings that were once cleared by long freight can be blocked by a stationary train.

Obviously, if there are fewer crew members available to operate the trains, the trains that are shipped across the country are going to be longer, allowing the rail line to serve its shippers.

But this week, some answers may be forthcoming as the CEOs of major rail carriers meet with the Surface Transportation Board in Washington to address shipper complaints and give board members a better understanding of some of the challenges facing railroads.

Hopefully this process will allow the rail system to find a solution.

Stu Ellis is an observer of the agricultural scene in central Illinois. In addition to his weekly column, you can check out his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.