KANSAS CITY — As thermometers began to elevate late last week across the US Upper Midwest, northern and southern Plains and most of the Central states, the grain transportation logistics picture improved.
While a mid-February extended cold snap spurred conversations about potential winterkill damage to dormant winter wheat crops, grain market participants focused more on nearby logistical concerns.
Temperatures hit a record-low -9 degrees in Kansas City on Feb. 16 and thermometers in nearby Lawrence, Kan., fell to -17. Cold weather slowed movements of grain trains, at times to a standstill, due to the effects on locomotive power and rail car air brakes. Snow and ice stymied truck traffic in the Central states and Northeast, but especially in the southern Plains of northern Texas where trucks aren’t typically tuned for ultra-cold weather.
By the weekend of Feb. 19-21, overnight low temperatures had risen steadily into the 20-30 degree range from the Canadian border down to central Texas. At mid-morning Feb. 22, storm activity was limited to snowfall from Washington along the eastern seaboard to western Maine, including most of Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Moderate to heavy rainfall was lashing the Appalachian states and scattered parts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Grain trains were flowing more regularly again by Feb. 19, brokers and millers said, and supplies were arriving after 24- to 36-hour delays.
“It could have been a lot worse,” a miller said.
As a considerable number of rail cars had earlier been placed at country origins in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, loading for contract applications or spot market offerings were expected to break open early this week.
Meanwhile Class 1 railroads told market participants to expect extreme congestion and lengthy delay times through Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago gateways.
Millers did not see evidence of gateway congestion by Feb. 19. But if cars loaded and sitting on tracks last week were to hit gateways simultaneously, congestion could develop this week or beyond.
“Where there are a bunch of empties on one end and loads on another end sitting, waiting to be pulled, and they all try to catch up at once, that could be a problem,” a merchandiser said.
US rail carloads and intermodal units in the week ended Feb. 13, the latest for which statistics are available, totaled 480,493, up 0.03% from the same week a year earlier, bringing the 2021 cumulative total to 3,079,821 for an average of 513,304 per week, a 4% increase from the same period in 2020, according to the American Association of Railroads.
US carloads for the week totaled 211,420, down 7% compared with the same week a year earlier, bringing 2021 cumulative rail carloads to 1,368,116, an average of 228,019 per week, a 3% decrease from the same period in 2020.
US weekly intermodal volume totaled 269,063 containers and trailers, up 7% compared with the same week in 2020. That brought 2021 cumulative intermodal volume to 1,711,705 containers and trailers, an average of 285,284 per week, up 10% compared with the same period in 2020.
Four carload commodity groups, chemicals, forest products, grain and “other,” notched year-over-year increases. Largest among them was grain carloads, which last week totaled 22,823, a 25% increase compared with the same week in 2020. That brought cumulative grain carloads to 158,814 for a 2021 average of 26,469 carloads per week, a 35% increase from 2020.
Canadian grain carloads by rail in the week ended Feb. 13 totaled 7,942, a 31% increase from the same week in 2020, bringing the 2021 cumulative total to 59,720 for a 2021 weekly average of 9,953, a 44% increase compared with the same period in 2020.
Mexican grain carloads by rail in the week ended Feb. 13 totaled 1,809, down 19% from the same week in 2020, bringing the year-to-date total to 10,369 for a weekly average of 1,728, a 20% decline from the same period in 2020.
For the North American continent, grain was the only carload commodity group to show a year-over-year increase for the week. Grain carloads totaled 32,574, up 23% from the same week a year earlier.
Barge grain movements in the week ended Feb. 13, the latest week for which statistics were available, totaled 679,681 tons, down 14% from the previous week but up 51% compared with the same week in 2020, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers. In the same week, 403 grain barges moved down river, a decline of 73 barges from the previous week, according to the Corps in conjunction with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Grain barges unloaded in New Orleans for the week totaled 777, a 26% decline from the previous week.
Oceangoing grain vessels loaded in the Gulf in the week ended Feb. 11 totaled 48, up 55% from the same period in 2020, the AMS said. As of Feb. 11, the rate for shipping one tonne of grain from the US Gulf to Japan was $49, up 5% from the previous week. The rate from the US Pacific Northwest to Japan was $27 per tonne, up 1% from the previous week.
The average US diesel fuel price in the week ended Feb. 15 was $2.876 per gallon, up 7.5¢ from the previous week but 1.4¢ below the same week last year, according to the US Department of Energy.