FARGO, N.D. - Regional exporters that deal in value-added ag product shipments say their container shipments have been disrupted by rail restrictions in St. Paul and Chicago container loading yards.

Bob Sinner, president of SB&B Foods Inc., in Casselton, N.D., received notice on the afternoon of Nov. 4 that a BNSF Railway Inc. intermodal ramp in St. Paul could be shut down. He started taking counter-measures - delaying or speeding shipments into St. Paul.

He says he’s never seen such a thing, and it could have a big effect on his food-grade soybean export flow.

“This is serious,” Sinner says, adding he got an email about the shutdown from one of the ocean carriers, who supplies and carries the containers to foreign destinations.

SB&B and others do not deal with BNSF for their container shipping, but deal through ocean carriers who handle both seagoing and inland reservations. He says the carriers have been notifying his company of disruptions. On Nov. 5, Hanjin Shipping Co. notified its customers that inbound and outbound container movement “to and from Minneapolis will be suspended until further notice.”

Hanjin also said all Chicago routing to the Pacific Northwest destinations would be suspended and all cargoes would be moved via Los Angeles or Long Beach.

“The Pacific Northwest (Seattle/ Tacoma) Reefer Export Service would be suspended until further notice,” Hanjin says.

Amy McBeth, a Minneapolis-based spokesperson for BNSF, says the company told its customers that marine terminal operators in the Pacific Northwest have advised BNSF and other port customers that there have been “periodic labor shortages” that have “created congestion and a backlog of containers intending to move to and from these ports.” She denied that any St. Paul intermodal terminals had been closed.

She says the situation is fluid, so BNSF is exercising “caution in accepting and originating traffic” that cannot be processed at certain marine terminals. BNSF says it had imposed gate restrictions to the Seattle International Gateway, but those were lifted.

“Pipeline levels to the Port of Tacoma terminals remain more congested than normal, requiring that gate restrictions remain in place” at Chicago and St. Paul for another 24 hours, BNSF says.

A report in The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., says a labor dispute was causing “several major terminals to ban new export cargoes entering their terminals and to restrict some truckers from picking up imported containers because of the lack of chassis on which to carry those containers,” but added the “union contends that chassis shortage is the result of terminal mismanagement, not the result of any work slowdown.”

Sinner says he’s heard no reports about similar shutdowns at the Canadian Pacific Railway ramp. SB&B continues to ship product out on the CP, through Vancouver, British Columbia.

“Usually when one railroad implements something, the others follow. We’ll have to wait and see,” he says, noting the ratios change, but roughly half of his volume is going on CP right now.

Containers might not get to customers when they need them. Carriers are starting to implement “congestion surcharges,” which would add costs for SB&B and others.

Rick Brandenburger is president of Richland IFC Inc. of Breckenridge, Minn., which also exports food-grade soybeans into Asia.

“To be perfectly honest, the whole intermodal system is chaotic right now because of congestion,” he says. “In the news, they talk about the covered hopper cars, but it is deeper than that. It affects all freights.”