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Grain Train Brings Hope to Palouse

by Barbara Coyner
Capital Press, December 18, 2008

Cooperative effort puts regional alternative mode back on tracks

OAKESDALE, Wash. - Dec. 9 marked a red-letter day for grain growers across the Palouse as a 110-car grain train snaked its way across the rolling hills between Marshall and Oakesdale.

Engineer Jeremy Leiterman finessed the four BNSF engines into place beside a skyline of grain elevators as a marathon began. Fifty-six cars needed to be loaded with soft white wheat in 24 hours, with a $2 million deadline in place.

Down the line at Spangle, a similar push was on with 43 cars to be loaded, while 11 more cars awaited filling at Plaza.

Once the cars were loaded, Leiterman and Stan Patterson, head of the Washington and Idaho Railroad, would pull them back to Marshall. From there, they would head to the Port of Portland and the export market.

"Burlington Northern, the short line (WIR) and Co-Ag all worked together on this," said Jackie Tee, general manager at Co-Ag, based in Rosalia.

"This is just a first step," Tee said of the shuttle train, which allowed for lower freight rates based on the 110-car co-load configuration. "We're looking at the concept, but there are certain costs involved, and certain specifications to be met for BN. We are all seriously looking at the idea of loading at more than one location. This was our first co-load, and we hope to do some more."

Co-Ag represents a consolidation of Fairfield Grain Growers, Rosalia Producers and Oakesdale Grain Growers, which joined forces in 1998. By the time Tee came on as general manager in 2007, train service was in a downward spiral with rates skyrocketing. The situation became critical enough that the Washington Department of Transportation stepped in to take ownership of the rail line. The WIR operated the short line, hauling 26-car loads out of Oakesdale and other Co-Ag locations.

Meanwhile, Patterson and Tee worked steadily with BNSF to get a more workable solution. Tee's positive experience with railroads when she served as general manager at Fairfield Grain Growers made her equally determined to keep rail service alive for Co-Ag.

"This deal has been in the making since September of '07," Patterson said of the trial run. "I wanted a way to pick up cars for Co-Ag, my biggest customer, and offer a service much like they have at Ritzville."

For Patterson, the idea is to offer rates competitive with barging, adding options for grain shippers such as Co-Ag.

By the next day, Patterson and Tee both noted that the critical deadlines had been met and the trial run had gone off without a hitch. For producers, there was renewed optimism that 400,000 bushels of soft white wheat could still make a profit with the railroad's help. And for WIR engineer Jeremy Leiterman, a third-generation railroad man, there was an obvious sense of accomplishment as he powered up the BNSF locomotive for the run back to Marshall.

Barbara Coyner is a freelancer based in Princeton, Idaho.
Grain Train Brings Hope to Palouse
Capital Press, December 18, 2008

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