- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - BNSF Railway Co. has promised to add more locomotives and crews in an effort to address delays in Amtrak service and agricultural product shipping in North Dakota, the state’s congressional delegation said Tuesday.

Increased crude oil and freight shipments largely have been blamed for causing the rail delays. BNSF has said that rail service is being hampered by a wave of blizzards and subzero weather.

Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer met with BNSF Chairman and CEO Matt Rose and senior officials from American Crystal Sugar Co. and the North Dakota Farmers Union to help resolve shipping delays that have occurred this winter.

BNSF has to make a resource commitment and they say that’s what they’ll do,” Hoeven told The Associated Press.

BNSF intends to add 5,000 crew members systemwide, including 250 temporary workers in North Dakota, Hoeven said. The railroad also pledged to add 5,000 railcars and 125 temporary locomotives that will be dispatched to North Dakota within the next two weeks.

“Adding locomotives and cars is the biggest thing,” Hoeven said.

North Dakota’s congressional delegation also was told that BNSF expects its Amtrak service in North Dakota to be running on schedule by month’s end. The federally funded rail corporation, which uses BNSF lines, has said the “severe freight train interference” is causing long delays along its Chicago-to-Pacific Northwest Empire Builder route. In North Dakota, Amtrak trains are bypassing the cities of Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby. Passengers in those cities are being bused to either Minot or Fargo to reconnect to westbound or eastbound trains.

Spokeswoman Amy McBeth said BNSF has worked for weeks to reroute some trains and add crews and locomotives. “Those efforts are still ongoing,” she said.

The lack of railcars has delayed shipping of agricultural products by as much as 40 days, said Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, which has about 40,000 members. Delays have added costs for grain elevators and agricultural producers, he said.

“Even though BNSF told us they are making attempts to harmonize ag and oil shipments, it appears that ag has fallen down on the list of priorities,” Watne said in a statement Tuesday.

American Crystal Sugar has said the slowdown in rail service has forced it to cut back on production, something company officials said could cost millions if the situation doesn’t improve. The cooperative said it planned to limit output at its plants in Hillsboro and Drayton, and in East Grand Forks, Minn.

BNSF is based in Fort Worth, Texas, but is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., based in Omaha, Neb. The railroad is the biggest player in the rich oil fields of Montana and North Dakota, hauling the bulk of the crude out of the region and the inbound freight that supports oil drilling.

BNSF said it plans to invest $5 billion in its railroad this year, including $900 million to expand capacity in North Dakota and other locations where crude oil shipments are surging. Its 2014 spending plan is about $1 billion more than last year.

Hoeven said those upgrades should help improve rail service in North Dakota in the long term.