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Trains at Laurel railyard

A grain train moves out of the rail yard at Laurel in 2011. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad said Wednesday it is relocating 55 workers to Laurel from Forsyth and Glendive.

Montana wheat shipments to Pacific Northwest ports continue to improve after a cold, sluggish winter for BNSF trains.

The state’s $1 billion a year wheat industry had been all but sidetracked for several months as bad weather, track construction and oil traffic contributed to a 40-plus-day backlog of several thousand grain cars. Unable to move, wheat was piling up at elevators across the state.

As weather conditions have improved, the delays have dropped below 30 days. The number of Montana grain cars past due through the end of May was 2,833, down 283 cars from a month earlier.

“They’re chewing through the pile pretty good,” said Lochiel Edwards, a Big Sandy farmer who works on rail issues for the Montana Grain Growers Association.

Edwards said that 110-car grain shuttles, the bread and butter of Montana wheat shipments, are completing up to 2.5 trips a month, slightly less than the 2.7 trips per month target that farmers would like to see, but getting within an acceptable range.

Still straggling are non-shuttle shipments of fewer than 100 cars. Those shipments are pieced together with other small freight amounts and ship at a slower pace, even without track congestion.

BNSF advised farmers May 30 that thawing ground frost was creating soft track bed conditions between Glasgow and Minot, N.D., which meant traffic was slower in those areas. Soft ground issues were popping up across North Dakota from the Montana state line to Grand Forks.

Past due rail cars in North Dakota at May’s end numbered 6,703 with an average 30.9 days late.

BNSF will spend $5 billion on track improvements this year, including a double-line project between Glasgow and Minot to improve wheat and oil traffic. Large siding projects are underway in Forsyth and Glendive to accommodate several shuttle trains, each more than a mile long.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.