The recent run of below-zero temperatures has been hard on farm country. It’s also made it hard to ship commodities from farm country to their eventual destinations. Mike Steenhoek (STEEN-hook) is Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition. He says the unusually long cold snap is slowing things down and, “A lot of people don’t understand the impact it has on rail efficiency. When you have snow or ice that has covered the tracks, you have to clear it, and that imposes some inefficiency on the system. But what a lot of people don’t appreciate is the impact of the severe cold weather on the air-braking system that trains rely on. And when the temperature does get so cold, the railroads are forced to shorten the length of their trains. They have to maintain the same amount of locomotive power, but you can’t have such a long train unit.”
Smaller train units for transportation mean it takes longer to move the same amount of agricultural freight, making the system less economical and efficient. The weather has also been hard on the inland waterway system. The Upper Mississippi River system is typically closed from December through March. However, shipping along the Illinois River has slowed down quite a bit because the channels of open water are much narrower than usual due to ice that forms along the shore and stretches out to the middle of the rivers. Steenhoek says, “When that occurs, the Army Corps of Engineers will impose width restrictions, so the number of barges that you can lash together to ultimately comprise a barge tow, or what’s called a flotilla. You have to limit the number of barges that can be attached together. Each barge can handle well over 50,000 bushels of soybeans, so every time you remove some of those barges, all of a sudden that decreases the efficiency of the system as well.”
He says the freezing weather also makes it hard for barges to safely get through the locks and dams along the main rivers, and, “Think about every time you go through a lock and dam, crew members that have to get outside, unlash parts of that barge flotilla to send it through. Essentially, they break it apart, send part of the whole flotilla through one lock chamber, and then they bring the rest of it through. Every time they go through a lock, that involves people being outside in cold weather. There are ice accumulations because you’re dealing with water on the inland waterway system. It just becomes all the more dangerous.”
The other big challenge in cold weather is keeping workers in the transportation system safe. Steenhoek says, “Cold temperatures are obviously a concern for crew members, and that certainly applies to barge crew members, but then also rail workers and truckers. There’s obviously a necessary time when you’re in the supply chain when you have to step out of your truck, your locomotive, or your barge to provide service. And when you have severely cold temperatures, that limits the amount of time that those individuals can operate safely, so that’s just one more inefficiency that you often don’t think of.”
Mike Steenhoek is Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.