Published January 1, 2004 | January 2004 issue
Farmers in North Dakota are suffering the worst shortage of rail cars in recent memory, with almost 18 million bushels of grain piled on the ground outside elevators.
This year's harvest is a major factor in the shortage because it came earlier and was larger than expected. Grain began to accumulate during the earlier wheat harvest and continued during the corn and other harvests.
In expectation of a larger harvest, the Canadian Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railways ordered more cars and locomotives, but these steps have so far not met demand. Delays on shipping orders in some areas have been as long as 38 days. However, many elevators have guaranteed delivery contracts with the railroads and face shorter delays.
While this year is exceptional, the shortage is part of a regular trend. Some public service commissioners and elevator managers blame cutbacks in fleet size and staff by railroads.
Many producers had deferred payment for crops until Jan. 1. Elevator managers warned that if the grain was not delivered, they would not be able to meet those payments. Some also worried that the grain on the ground would spoil.