Cold snap delays some U.S. grain shipments

The Illinois River is getting hit the worst, expert says.

The cold snap gripping a large part of the U.S. is creating delays of grain and soybean shipments.

With the frigid temperatures freezing roads and railroad tracks, the U.S. inland waterway system is experiencing ice-related issues too, according to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

Steenhoek explains that there are reports of shipments of soybeans and grain being delayed due to the extreme winter weather.  

“The need to clear snow and ice from rail tracks is an obvious disruption. Less obvious to many is the impact of extreme cold temperatures on the efficacy of a train’s air braking system. When the air brakes do not perform as normal, the frequent response by a railroad is to limit the number of freight cars per unit.  The overall length of the train will be shortened. This clearly decreases the volume capacity of a single train. More locomotives will be required to transport a given volume,” Steenhoek says. 

He added, “We are also seeing ice conditions along certain segments of the inland waterway system, which limits the width of barge flotillas. Ice naturally extends from the shoreline to the middle of the river channel. As that occurs, the navigation channel becomes more narrow and restricted – necessitating width limits on barge flotillas. The ice notices and warnings I’m seeing issued by the Army Corps of Engineers are mostly along the Illinois River. The Corps is therefore posting restrictions on width, etc.”

There are not entire closures being imposed on the Illinois River, Steenhoek says.

“I’m not seeing any restrictions on the Ohio River or the locks on the Upper Mississippi River (unless they are the ones that are normally shut down from December thru mid-March).”   

Of course, the extreme cold temperatures will result in limits on the amount of time truck drivers, train operators, and barge crew members can safely be outside, he says. “This adds an additional inefficiency to the overall supply chain.” 

Steenhoek says the current cold snap is creating the most problems for grain being railed to its export ports.

“I am not able to say definitely which part of the supply chain is most impacted by the extreme winter weather, but based on the testimonials I’ve received, the route to the Pacific Northwest is experiencing significant delays. These are overwhelmingly rail movements,” Steenhoek says. 

Steenhoek admits that winter in the Midwest and Plains states will routinely result in transportation inefficiencies. “However, the recent and current extreme winter conditions are clearly imposing a greater impact than normal,” he says. 

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