Wheat Industry Forced  to Find Shipping Alternatives

Wheat Industry Forced to Find Shipping Alternatives

Pacific Northwest picked trucks, rail to haul wheat when locks shut down.

Closure of the Columbia and Snake rivers to wheat traffic during an extensive lock overhaul last winter led to significant layoffs in the barge industry, which let 35% to 67% of their workers go, a new Washington State  University report reveals.

"Some barge companies offered job sharing and reduced employees' work  hours rather than lay off their entire staff," says WSU Freight Policy Transportation Institute Director Ken Casavant in Industry Reactions to the Columbia-Snake River Extended Lock Outage, December 2010-March 2011.

Although the bulk of the Columbia-Snake rivers closed down to barge traffic during the outage, Bonneville Dam – the nearest locks to the Port of Portland – remained open during a large portion of the outage, allowing a few barge lines to continue service below The Dalles Lock and Dam, he reports.

In contrast to barge companies, which lost business for the majority of the lock outage, Casavant says rail lines experienced an increase in cargo loads. "Rail lines in the Pacific Northwest dealt with greater than normal volumes, additional products that would have move by barge , increased crew numbers, additional days of operation and several extra trains per week," he says.

Part of this experience included rail lines reaching out to industries that needed transportation during the outage and partnering with local ports to aid in the movement of products that would normally travel by barge, says Casavant.

When the locks shut down, it disrupted a major Pacific Northwest business enterprise involved with shipments on the water. Waterborne movements are one of the more economic and cost-efficient methods of transport among all modes, comprising a key component of PNW's transport system, says Casavant.

The report reveals the great importance of wheat to the barge industry on the Snake and Columbia rivers. According to Casavant, 70% of downriver barge traffic shipments consist of wheat.

"Although most firms were able to work around the lock outage without too much difficulty, some firms called the outage a 'nightmare,'" Casavant reveals.

During the months of December, 2010, through March, 2011 of the outage, wheat firms in the Pacific Northwest shipped about 28% of wheat by truck (normally about 10% is trucked), and 68% by rail, and only 4% by barge, he adds.

"Seven wheat firms increased their shipments by truck and 11 elevators increased their shipments by rail during the lock outage," he says. "Four firms in southern Washington and one in northern Idaho did not ship any wheat during the lock outage."

These firms normally use barge transportation and the switch to truck or rail would have been too expensive, he reports.

Due to high prices for wheat before the closures took place, but were announced, may wheat elevators took advantage of the opportunity to ship their grain prior to the closures, Casavant says.

"Other wheat firms, especially in southern Washington and northern Idaho have chosen to wait until the lock outage is complete to ship their volumes by barge. Rates for trucking and rail transportation were too expensive in these areas and shipping prior to the lock outage was all-around more economical," he says.

For a complete copy of the report, go to http://www.fpti.wsu.edu/reports.htm.

The report may be found at this site by the above name, as well as the two previous reports by Casavant on the closures.

WSU Research Assistant Sara Simmons assisted in this report.


For more on this story, see the September cover of Western Farmer-Stockman.

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