Agricultural businesses throughout southern and eastern Idaho are feeling the effects of a nationwide train shortage that some fear could have serious repercussions.
Grain elevators have been forced to pile grain on the ground. Potato shippers have cut back operations and farmers have sold their goods for lower prices.
Though state officials have no dollar estimate of how bad the problem is, individual operators say the shortage is costing money.
The problem has grown serious enough that Idaho Gov. Phil Batt sent a letter to the president of Union Pacific Railroad Oct. 24, expressing concerns about the company’s inability to get enough railcars and engines to Idaho shippers.
“I am especially concerned about the possibility that Idaho sugar beet growers and other shippers of perishable goods will suffer crippling losses if Union Pacific is unable to provide adequate rail service,” Batt wrote.
He also reminded the company that he backed the 1996 merger between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific after receiving assurances it would not hurt service in Idaho.
The largest railroad company in the country, Union Pacific has the only tracks connecting southern and eastern Idaho farmers to out-of-state markets.
The company is working to untangle a traffic jam that began in Texas in late June on former Southern Pacific lines, Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said. A worker and terminal shortage created a backlog there, throwing off complicated routing schedules along much of its 36,000 miles of track. Bromley said the problem was made worse by a high demand for railcars this year.
The train jam has prompted the federal government to step in. The Surface Transportation Board, which oversees interstate rail traffic, recently imposed 30-day emergency measures aimed at getting Union Pacific trains moving faster. Those measures include allowing competing railroads to use some of the company’s tracks in Texas, and requiring Union Pacific to report on their recovery efforts Dec. 3, Bromley said.
But Union Pacific has made no mention of opening its Idaho tracks to competitors, something Batt hinted at as an option in his letter.