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Thune sounds alarm as railroad backlog deepens

As South Dakota farmers look to harvest their 2014 crops, many in the agriculture industry are still worried about when trains might pick up grain remaining in storage after the 2013 harvest.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he worries, too, as railroad companies have not been able to keep all of their promises to clear up a backlog.

"According to the latest status report, Burlington Northern's backlog in South Dakota is 444 cars and the average car is 7.1 days late," Thune told reporters Wednesday. "The number of late cars has doubled over the last two weeks."

Thune said he's heard of South Dakota farmers loading grain on trucks and driving a few hundred miles to get their grain to a storage facility or to a rail head, as demand for rail shipments of oil from North Dakota's Bakken fields make rail cars scarce in the upper Great Plains.

"We're reaching a very critical juncture in South Dakota as the wheat harvest begins," Thune said. "I really worry with the wheat harvest coming in now and corn and soybeans coming in later -- in what look like pretty big harvests -- that we're headed for some very, very difficult times ahead if we don't head this off now."

As nervous as those in South Dakota's ag industry might be, North Dakota is "a real mess" with a backlog of more than 4,000 cars, Thune said.

On June 20, the federal Surface Transportation Board ordered Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads to publicly file their plans to resolve their backlog "after months of inconsistent service," Thune said.

Those plans are giving the public and officials a better handle on the logistical challenges facing the railroad companies, but they don't seem to have eased any concerns. With no quick solution in site, Thune said he has begun exploring other options, including ways to provide incentives for farmers to build their own grain storage.

Thune vowed to continue to pressure the railroads and members of the Surface Transportation Board to find a way to improve service in South Dakota, where agriculture has long held the status as the state's No. 1 industry.

"I'm going to make sure the railroads are being as responsive as humanly possible. We all know the impact agriculture has on our economy in South Dakota," Thune said. "This is an issue that directly and profoundly impacts that economy. We've got to be able to get our products to the marketplace in an affordable and efficient way. We can't have a lot of grain sitting on the ground rotting."