WAND Special Report: Train Delays Affect State's Bottom Line

CHAMPAIGN - Most have experienced the frustration of being stranded by a train. But when those trains run consistently slow, it not only affects schedules, it affects the state's bottom line.

US Senator Dick Durbin says the Chicago - Champaign - Carbondale AMTRAK route is the most delayed route of its kind in America. And he blames Canadian National Railroad. Moving people is one thing. But what about the state's largest industry, agriculture? Turns out -- moving crops is just as big a problem.

Recently Senator Durbin asked the Surface Transportation Board to extend its oversight period for Canadian National. He says since purchasing the EJ&E corridor a few years ago, trains operating on that stretch of tracks average over 5,000 delays per quarter. "CN has a long history of delaying AMTRAK trains, and delaying investments that can improve passenger and freight service," Durbin added in August when he announced his request to the STB.

Durbin also says farmers are suffering.

Don Wenneker, a retired farmer - turned agriculture consultant says elevators operators are especially vulnerable:  "Anything that slows up the grain elevator system in the US is going to ripple back to the producer in either delays harvesting, or reduced prices,” Wenneker said. The delays also affect processors like ADM and TATE & LYLE, which not only need a constant flow of grain, but fuel tankers and other products to keep their processing plants operating.

 "They want to see those trains of whatever the product might be depart the origin on time and arrive at the destination in a certain window" Wenneker said.

Dan Elliott is the newest Director of the STB. He has agreed to take a serious look at Durbin's request to extend CN's oversight period into 2017. But he understands the complications railroads experience. Elliott says there are only so many freight cars to go around. Lately there's been a lot of competition for that space: "The new bucket oil that's been coming down from North Dakota...the uptake in coal as the result of a difficult winter. And also there was a huge grain crop." he said last August. WAND Agriculture expert David Brown explains why this is also affecting farmers up north who do business in Central Illinois: "There is issues with the farmers up in the Dakotas having to carry last year's crop over to this year to try to get it moved because they simply cannot get it shipped out."

Brown adds that hauling grain by rail is usually cheaper than trucks, which can each hold less than a thousand bushels of grain. "It has cost anywhere from a dollar and a quarter to a dollar and a half per bushel to get a rail car. And they'll hold about 4,000 bushels!"

But railroads have to make a profit, too. "I think everybody is quick to blame the railroads" explained Wenneker. "And I certainly think they have a struggle. But I think they're doing a lot of things trying to build infrastructure."

If Senator Durbin gets his way and the STB extends the oversight period for Canadian National, it could still be years before these rail delays are resolved. "It's just congesting the whole system" said Brown. "It just kind of all runs downhill to where who can and who can't pay for this space." AMTRAK is now suing Canadian National for not giving their trains preference through the EJ&E, as promised. But if they do give preference, it will only slow down the freight traffic running in and around the Chicagoland area. At last check, Senator Durbin still had no answer from the STB.