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Leaders criticize Canadian Pacific: Heitkamp, Cramer raise concerns over ND rail shipment delays

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation criticized Canadian Pacific Railway on Thursday for its new system of ordering train cars for agricultural shipments.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., sent a letter to Canadian Pacific CEO E. Hunter Harrison on Thursday. It came as the state's agricultural industry struggles with shipment delays in recent months.

In a news release that included her letter, Heitkamp said many customers were required to cancel most of their open orders for railcars, leaving them "without certainty that they will receive the cars they need under the new system while preventing them from selling the grain that has been delayed for months."

Heitkamp said canceling orders means the number of open requests for cars has dropped, but "it isn't because Canadian Pacific has fulfilled those requests."

"Canadian Pacific is trying to pretend like the massive agricultural shipment delays across North Dakota don't exist despite the fact that grain has been piling up around the state for months," Heitkamp said the release. She is currently on an official Senate trip to Africa and was unavailable for an interview, her office said.

Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings said the company would not have a response available Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a news release issued later Thursday that grain elevators are being asked by CP to cancel existing car requests "in order to participate in a new shuttle program."

"I will not tolerate bullying tactics of any kind, especially given the pressures already placed on our agriculture industry," he said in a statement.

Policymakers have pushed railroads such as CP and BNSF, the two largest in North Dakota, to catch up on agricultural shipments. Increases in crude oil rail shipments, harsh winter weather and increases in other commodities have been blamed for the delays.

A BNSF report showed that there were 1,336 past-due cars averaging 10.2 days late in North Dakota as of Aug. 21. CP reported 10,266 open requests in North Dakota with an average age of 12.71 weeks.

"We think it's a good thing that they're trying to implement a car ordering system that will better help them manage demand and car orders," said Stu Letcher, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association. "But we just want them to remember that there is still grain to move out there."

Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, said elevators may have to put in new orders for the ones that were canceled.

"And hopefully with those new orders, they'll catch up with the inventory that you still have to move from last year's crop," he said.

Heitkamp also asked Harrison, the CP CEO, for some clarification on several points, including CP's limit on the number of cars customers are allowed to order at one time.

The federal Surface Transportation Board is holding a hearing regarding rail backlogs in Fargo next week.

"I have brought these reports to the Surface Transportation Board, and this serious matter will be a specific part of my inquiry during next week's hearing in Fargo," Cramer said in a statement.