On Jan. 30, 2024, Casey Chumrau, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, offered compelling testimony supporting the crucial infrastructure of dams and locks on the Columbia Snake River System (CSRS) at a U.S. House Energy, Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee hearing. U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) sent separate letters with their observations of the essential nature of the CSRS for U.S. wheat export competitiveness.

Following are excerpts from Chumrau’s testimony.

Grain growers in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) rely on the Columbia Snake River System, and the Lower Snake River Dams (LSRD) in particular, for their livelihoods. More than 55 percent of all U.S. wheat exports move through the PNW by barge or rail. Specifically, 10 percent of wheat that is exported from the United States passes through the four locks and dams along the Lower Snake River. This is especially important for our state because Washington is the fourth largest wheat exporter in the nation, exporting 90% of the wheat produced in the state. Across the agriculture industry, the Columbia Snake River System is the second largest gateway for soybean and corn exports coming from as far as the Midwest. The river system also serves as an important channel to bring crop inputs, like potash, to farmers in the region who need fertilizer to produce the safe and affordable food supply that is found on every American’s table.

Casey Chumrau, CEO, Washington Grain Commission, giving testimony on Columbia Snake River System Jan. 30, 2024, to a U.S. House subcommittee hearing.

Casey Chumrau, CEO, Washington Grain Commission, giving testimony on Columbia Snake River System Jan. 30, 2024, to a U.S. House Energy, Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee hearing.

Economic Impact

Washington’s agriculture industry, and its ability to produce and export products globally, are critical to the state and region’s economy. The total value of wheat exported through the PNW is nearly $4 billion per year.

For Washington, the state is among the top 20 states for agricultural exports in the nation, with over $8 billion in Washington-grown or processed food and agriculture exports in 2022. A significant volume of food and agriculture products from other states including soybeans, wheat, and corn are exported through Washington state ports each year. Once these pass-through exports are combined with Washington-grown or processed exports, the total value reaches over $23 billion.

The Washington wheat industry alone contributed over $3.1 billion to the state’s economy in 2022, with a heightened impact in rural areas. In the same year, total direct employment associated with Washington wheat production amounted to 3,672 jobs in 2022. Indirect and induced employment also grew and supported another 11,676 jobs.

The impact that Washington farmers have on their local and regional economy is similar in communities across the country. In addition to direct sales of farm goods and commodities, farmers contribute to the economy and support other rural businesses through purchases of farm business inputs – everything from seed and fertilizer to business services. Additionally, the personal purchases of both farmers and their employees help to stimulate local economies and keep small businesses ruining.

Locks and dams on the Lower Snake River and the Columbia River provide essential infrastructure for moving U.S.-grown wheat to high-value markets around the world. We cannot overstate the positive value they create for U.S. farms, [the] economy of the Pacific Northwest and far beyond. – From USW letter to House subcommittee hearing on the Columbia Snake River System

Supply Chain and Transportation

Over the last seventy years, growers and their federal government partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have invested billions of dollars and countless hours to build strong relationships with our trading partners. The U.S. wheat industry differentiates itself by providing high-quality wheat and reliable delivery. The United States is a reliable trading partner in large part because of our world class, multi-modal infrastructure, which allow us to safely and efficiently ship products around the world. Any disruption to that system would hurt our ability to consistently provide abundant, high-value food products and remain competitive with other agricultural exporters in the world and weaken the competitiveness of U.S. producers in global markets.

Grain growers in PNW states are at the tip of the spear of those who would feel the disruption of having to divert export goods to trucking and rail because there is insufficient alternative transportation infrastructure to replace the barge shipments of grain along the Columbia Snake River System to export markets. For example, one loaded covered hopper barge carries over 58,000 bushels of wheat. It would take 113,187 semi-trailers each year carrying 910 bushels of wheat to replace the 103 million bushels shipped on the Snake River via barge annually. That is 310 more trucks each day, making round trips to the Tri-Cities, 365 days per year. To that end, barging is the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation when compared to railroads and trucking. Each barge that must be replaced by a truck means more pollution, more traffic, increased costs and increased wear and tear on our roads – and that’s if we could even hire the drivers needed to drive these trucks in the increasingly tight labor market for drivers.

Path Forward

We strongly believe that dams and salmon can and do co-exist. With a myriad of challenges facing the salmon population, we are committed to building upon current investments and technological advancements. Currently, the Lower Snake River Dams have world-class fish passage and juvenile survival rates upwards of 95 percent. We believe any work moving forward should build off the fish passages, instead of eliminating them. We also support investments made at the federal and state level for culvert removal, fish habitat restoration, toxin reduction, and predator abatement.


The opportunities to ensure salmon populations continue to grow do not have to come at the cost of destroying the integrity of the Columbia Snake River System and the livelihood of farmers. The importance of the river system for the agriculture industry, and particularly for grain growers across Washington, cannot be overstated. I look forward to discussing the importance of the four Lower Snake River Dams with you today. Thank you.

To read more about this issue, see these previous “Wheat Letter” posts:

Exports Depend on Snake River Dams

USW Expresses Support for Maintaining Lower Snake River Dams

Wheat Leaders: Protect Lower Snake River Dams


During the summer of 2023, U.S. wheat export basis levels hovered near record lows as slow demand met seasonal weakness. Across almost all the U.S. wheat classes and export points, export basis levels hovered below average, signaling a unique pricing opportunity for U.S. wheat. Historical trends indicate that basis levels generally hit their lowest point during wheat harvest and increase in October, November, and December as export capacity tightens in response to an influx of corn and soybeans.

Following the seasonal pattern, U.S. export basis levels have since risen for all U.S. wheat classes. Despite the increase, the average HRS basis for the Gulf and Pacific Northwest sits 15% below the five-year average, while HRW and SRW sit 31% and 27% below the five-year average, respectively. The following examines the underlying factors driving this trend and its impact as we dive into the second half of marketing year 2023/24.

Line chart showing export basis levels from December 2022 to December 2023.

U.S. export basis levels generally follow a seasonal pattern, hitting lows during the wheat harvest and highs during October, November, and December as elevation capacity tightens in response to the corn and soybean harvest. In July 2023, basis levels hovered near record lows as seasonal weakness was coupled with an overall lack of demand. Source: U.S. Wheat Associates Price Report.

Excess Capacity Meets Slow Demand

The most significant factor influencing the below-average basis values is the overall decrease in export volume for grains and oilseeds, particularly for soybeans. According to USDA, for the week ending December 28, 2023, inspections for all grains (wheat, corn, and soybeans) were down 19% from the same period last year and 39% below the three-year average.

U.S. soybean exports are down due primarily to South American competition in the Chinese market. Reflected in the December 2023 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, forecast for U.S. soybean exports to all destinations came in at 47.6 MMT, down from 54.2 MMT in 2022/23 and 58.6 MMT in 2021/22. Meanwhile, total Brazilian exports are forecast at a record 99.5 MMT, up from 95.5 MMT the year prior and 18% above the five-year average as record quantities of soybeans are exported to China.

U.S. wheat exports face similar competitive headwinds. USDA export data shows that the export pace sits 14% behind last year and 26% below the five-year average.

Line chart shows price changes since 2019 for secondary grain railcar auction market bids to illustrate effect on wheat export basis.

Secondary Railcar Auction Market Bids (a real-time reflection of the supply and demand for rail freight) for October, November, and December sit at $65.12/car on average, down from $836.11/car last year and the five-year average of $262.96/car. The combined impact of excess capacity within the grain handling and logistics system has removed pressure on wheat basis levels and allowed them to drift lower. Source: USDA Rail Transportation Dashboard.

The decrease in overall grain volume has created surplus capacity in the U.S. logistics systems, particularly for the railroads. As a result, Secondary Railcar Auction Market Bids (a real-time reflection of the supply and demand for rail freight) for October, November, and December sit at $65.12/car on average, down from $836.11/car last year, and the five-year average of $262.96/car. The combined impact of excess capacity within the grain handling and logistics system has removed pressure on wheat basis levels and allowed them to drift lower.

Basis Levels Support Competitiveness

As overall grain export volume remains below average, we can expect the depressing impact on the basis to continue. South American competition for soybean exports will continue to influence grain markets, forcing participants to readjust to the changing dynamic.

The combined impact of below-average basis levels and the downward trend in wheat futures prices, driven by competition from the Black Sea, Canada, and other origins, has helped improve U.S. wheat competitiveness throughout 2023/24. Therefore, basis movements will continue to play a key role in maximizing value and capitalizing on opportunities as they arise in the market.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford.


Over the last few weeks, we have explored all the major modes of the U.S. supply chain, evaluated recent trends, and highlighted how each type of transportation plays an integral role in the U.S. supply chain. Barging, rail, and oceangoing vessels work together to create the dependable supply chain importers of U.S. wheat expect. In periods of increased risk and volatility, a trustworthy, reliable supply chain is essential for providing customers with the wheat they need.

In the final installment of this series, we will explore the continued investment into the U.S. supply chain and highlight recent projects planned to keep the U.S. inland logistics system running efficiently and effectively.

This Just In

On Nov. 6, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) recently announced that more than 40 ports across the United States will receive $653 million in funding for improvement projects that will help with the movement of grain. Under the Port Infrastructure Development Program, the funding will help grow capacity and increase efficiency at coastal seaports, Great Lakes ports and inland river ports.

Stakeholder Commitment

With private companies owning and operating grain export infrastructure and assets, the U.S. supply chain benefits from significant commercial investment to ensure the effectiveness of the logistics system. Holding one of the largest stakes within inland transportation, the U.S. Class I railroads value the system’s reliability and understand its importance to wheat buyers worldwide.

One of the latest examples of continued private investment in the U.S. supply chain is the newly constructed rail bridge at Sandpoint Junction in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail network. On August 7, the inaugural trip on the new Sandpoint Junction Connector rail bridge occurred, representing the official opening of two-way traffic crossing Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. This junction is crucial because it is a merging point between the BNSF and Montana Rail Network and serves as the primary gateway that links grain grown in the Northern Plains to port access in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).

Map of the Pacific Northwest showing the location of an investment in the U.S. supply chain moving wheat to PNW ports.

The new Sandpoint Junction Connector rail bridge will allow two-way traffic across Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho, helping improve efficiency for wheat and other grain moving by rail from the Northern Plains to the PNW for export. Source: BNSF.

CPKC Network

CPKC railroad logoAnother noteworthy project is a $100 million investment commissioned by Kansas City Southern in October 2022 (now part of the Canadian Pacific Kansas City rail network) to construct a new international rail bridge connecting Laredo, Texas, U.S. to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The bridge expansion will allow trains to operate in both directions simultaneously, granting more economical access to the U.S. supply chain for Mexico, the largest importer of U.S. wheat.

Government Investment

Complimenting private investment into the domestic logistics systems, the U.S. federal government provides significant support to the U.S. grain supply chain to uphold its safety and dependability.

In September, the Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration granted $1.4 billion to finance 70 rail improvement projects through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program. The largest grant (nearly $73 million) is for the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC) improvements by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The PCC, a regional shoreline railroad, carries wheat traffic in major wheat-growing counties in eastern Washington, and the upgrades will help improve wheat shipments to elevators and seaports in the PNW by allowing for higher speeds and larger railcars.

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

While capital investment and improvement are vital to maintaining the efficiency of the U.S. rail systems and promoting wheat exports in the face of strong global competition, the U.S. supply chain benefits most from continuous investment in maintenance and repairs by private companies and state and federal governments. The backbone of a dependable, reliable system lies in the safety and proper function of the infrastructure and assets that make up the supply chain.

An important example of the commitment to preventive maintenance is the upcoming lock and dam closure on the Columbia Snake River System. In January 2024, the Army Core of Engineers will be performing maintenance on major components at the John Day and McNary dams on the Columbia River and at the Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams on the Snake River, resulting in an extended river closure from January 14 to March 29, 2024. This maintenance represents a forward-thinking investment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to ensure this critical waterway remains operational for decades to come.

Mississippi River Study

In addition, USACE is conducting a 5-year, Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Management Study that it says will yield recommendations for effective and practical management of the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, MO, to the Gulf of Mexico, a key U.S. supply chain serving growing export demand for U.S. soft red winter wheat.

According to the USACE, the purpose of the study is to identify recommendations for the comprehensive management of the region across multiple purposes, including navigation, flood risk management, and environmental restoration.

The combined impact of preventive maintenance, efficiency improvements, and significant capital investment are key components that differentiate the U.S. wheat supply chain and help the U.S. wheat export supply system remain the most reliable in the world.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford


As we continue a series of articles on U.S. supply chain logistics, rail is arguably the most important mode of transporting wheat for export.

According to a recent USDA Modal Share Analysis Study, rail accounted for an average of 59% of inland transportation for wheat exports between 2016 and 2020, or an average annual total of 17.0 million metric tons. This article will focus on the importance of rail freight in wheat exports and address current trends in rail performance.

Two vertical bar charts showing the volume of U.S. wheat shipped domestically and to export locations by truck, rail and barge between 2004 and 2020.

Rail and barging are the main modes of transportation for wheat exports, as they can handle large volumes of grain over long distances. Together, they transport 89% of the total wheat export shipments. Source: USDA Modal Share Analysis Study.

An Interesting Year

In 2022, increased demand for railcars and performance issues sent U.S. rail rates soaring, with Secondary Railcar Auction Market Bids hitting their highest since 2014. Since then, rail rates have eased drastically. From March 2023 to July 2023 secondary bids for railcars have been negative, indicating that the current supply of railcars is sufficient for meeting the needs of shippers.

Decreased volumes and the subsequent decrease in rail tariff rates and Secondary Railcar Market Auction Bids have added additional pressure to already low basis levels, helping boost the competitiveness of U.S. wheat to importers. However, as the 2023 soy and corn harvest progresses, we can expect rail rates to rise due to increased demand and a higher volume of grain moving via rail.

This vertical bar and line chart show a comparison of grain carloads average from previous years to the current 4 week period up to 8/25/23.

According to the latest Grain Transportation Report, grain carloads (corn, soybeans, and wheat) moved by Class I railroads were down 3% from the previous week and are sitting 22% below the three-year average. The current decreased volume alleviates pressure on basis as rail companies have a sufficient supply of cars to meet the current demand. Source: September 3, 2023 USDA Grain Transportation Report.

Even so, the outlook for fall logistics appears positive. In a recent interview with “Freightwaves,” transportation export Jay O’Neil indicated that “Weather is always a question mark that makes it [performance] impossible to predict. But overall, I think the railroads… have some excess capacity because of [reduced grain export volumes]. I think [railroads] are very much looking forward to the harvest season … So, I don’t see any particular influences right now that should get in their way and prevent them from providing a decent service for harvest.”

Part of a Reliable System

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) is committed to sharing transparent and pertinent information to customers about inland logistics issues. It is beneficial for U.S. wheat importers to be aware of transportation trends, as seasonal shifts and potential issues have a direct influence on export basis and the Free-on-Board export price.

Encompassing the largest share of inland logistics, the railroads are a critical component for moving U.S. wheat to export. After last years’ service disruptions, steps have been taken to help address the root issues such as hiring additional crew and investing in infrastructure. U.S. railroads are committed to moving U.S.-grown commodities. With diverse origination options and numerous modes of transportation, regardless of the class or export point, rail helps U.S. wheat remain the most reliable choice for world importers.

This article is part of a series outlining the inland logistics for U.S. wheat, highlighting barge freight, the railroads, infrastructure investments, and maritime transportation trends.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford


On April 18, 2023, Kansas City Southern Railway Company (KCS) and Canadian Pacific Railway Limited (CP) officially merged to create a new Class 1 railroad CPKS, the first single-line service across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico (map above from

CPKC railroad logoRail logistics comprise a sizeable portion of U.S. wheat export basis, encompassing the costs of transporting wheat from the vast growing region in the central U.S. to export hubs in the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest. The acquisition brings the total number of Class 1 railroads in North America from seven to six and may potentially impact wheat exports as the industry restructures in response to the merger.

In this article, we will summarize the importance of domestic rail for U.S. wheat buyers and look at the current trends in bulk rail as we look ahead to the merger’s implications.

Historical Perspective

Since the 1980s, the railroad industry has seen significant consolidation, going from 33 North American Class 1 railroads in 1980 to six in 2023.

In 2022 the four largest rail companies, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Union Pacific (UP), Canadian Pacific (CP), and Canadian National (CN), held 82% of the market share for grain origination in North America, creating an oligopoly in the U.S. rail transportation sector. The increased consolidation decreased the number of firms in the market competing for business, shifting the market power to favor rail service providers.

Pie chart showing the % market share for the 7 Class 1 railroad companies in North America before the merger of CP and KCS.

The top four Class 1 railroads in North America control 82% of the grain market share. The merger of CP and Kansas City Southern brings the total number of Class I railroads from seven to six. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. Grain Transportation Report. April 20, 2023. Web:

A potential consequence of increased concentration in the industry, tariff rates for all grains have steadily increased over the last 20 years; thus, making transportation costs greater for exporters who, in turn, increase basis for customers. A 2020 study by USDA found that from 2000 to 2014, rail rates increased by 30% for wheat, 31% for corn, and 30% for soybeans. Since 2014 wheat rail tariff rates have increased by an additional 18%. As rates rise, it erodes the competitiveness of U.S. wheat classes in the export market and makes U.S.-origin wheat more expensive for importers.

Line graph showing an increase in railroad tariff rates for corn, soybeans, and wheat from 2010 through 2023 to date.

Rail tariff rates have been on the rise for all bulk grains since 2010. Rates continued to increase even as shippers experience what they considered poor performance through most of 2022. Source: USDA AMS Rail Dashboard

Ongoing Issues

Throughout 2022 rail logistics faced considerable challenges that impacted the quality of performance throughout the bulk rail sector, including service interruptions and crew shortages. In October 2022, Secondary Railcar Auction Market Bids hit their highest level since 2014, reflecting massive demand for rail freight and an insufficient supply to meet the demand.

Graph showing historical secondary auction market railroad rates for grain from 2013 through 2023 to date.

Secondary auction market rates move more quickly than tariff rates and better reflect current supply and demand shifts as shippers buy and sell claims for guaranteed service. If demand is high during a particular period, bids increase, meanwhile when supplies are adequate secondary rates will hover near zero or negative if demand hits a low threshold. In the fall of 2022, Secondary Railcar Auction Market Bids hit their highest level since 2014. Source: USDA AMS Rail Dashboard

Performance issues and subsequent demand for rail cars contributed to elevated export basis throughout the fall of 2022. Strong basis levels and elevated wheat futures, a response to the geopolitical tensions brought on by the Russian invasion, created enormous price risk for U.S. wheat importers and further diminished U.S. wheat’s competitiveness in the world market.

Line graph showing changes in the "basis" for hard red spring wheat to Gulf, PNW and Lakes ports from April 2022 to April 2023 to demonstrate a spike attributed to railroad rates for shipping wheat.

Though wheat basis levels often increase during the fourth quarter of the calendar year as exporters focus on corn and soybean export programs, in the fall of 2022 basis levels skyrocketed. Basis levels jumped to $0.50/bu ($18.40/MT) over the previous five-year average, combined with historically high futures prices. Source: U.S. Wheat Associates Price Report

A Look Ahead

The Surface Transportation Board approved the merger on the grounds of efficiency, positive environmental impacts, improved rail performance, and increased employment; still, the STB necessitated additional oversight to ensure the preservation of competition. Despite the approval, the U.S. wheat industry remains skeptical of the merger’s effects on wheat export competitiveness, taking into account performance issues from major railroads, basis and logistics costs, and the oligopoly of the U.S. railroads.

On the other hand, CPKCS could help increase competition in some regions, due to increased access routes previously unserved by individual companies. Nevertheless, U.S. Wheat Associates will continue to support oversight from the STB and policies such as reciprocal switching that help preserve competition and contribute to our dependable, reliable supply chain.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford


In recent months, U.S. grain rail shipping has faced a host of service-related challenges ranging from delayed cars to metered traffic and dramatic spot freight market increases. Those service problems reached such elevated levels that the U.S. rail regulatory body, the Surface Transportation Board (STB), stepped in.

The STB will now require the four largest rail carriers to submit a host of documents and conduct biweekly check-ins with the agency until service levels are restored.

The U.S. wheat industry depends heavily on rail shipping to move the crop from farms and local elevators to domestic customers and to export elevators. And USDA reports that railroads ship 25% of all U.S. grains. That is why U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and its Transportation Working Group have coordinated with other organizations to highlight the challenges rail shipping has faced.

New Requirements

The move by the STB shows the agency is taking rail shipping concerns seriously. Carriers now must develop service recovery plans and submit regular progress reports. The regulator will also require all Class I railroads to report on customer-centric performance metrics and employment data for a six-month period. According to their published decision, the STB’s actions are “to promote industry-wide transparency, accountability, and improvements in rail service.”

The challenges with rail service are clear. The American Farm Bureau Federation put together an extensive report showing the severity of the shipping disruptions. For example, in the year after the first quarter of 2021, unfilled grain car orders went up 47%. The number of grain cars that were at least 11 days overdue went up 107%. Rates in the secondary rail market increased, and rail delivery speeds declined during the same period.

Shuttle loading system to present rail rates background

A 110-car shuttle train is loaded with grain at an inland elevator. The U.S. wheat industry depends heavily on rail shipping to move the crop to domestic customers and export elevators.

Threats of Service Cuts

In mid-April, the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad announced that it would start metering traffic if shippers did not voluntarily reduce their freight-car inventories. In a statement, UP said it had “experienced some setbacks – including numerous service interruptions, crew shortages…and delays to our network.” UP added that “additional inventory has led to more congestion in yards, an imbalance of our resources, and further slowdown of our operational performance.”

In response, CF Industries, a major fertilizer producer, said such actions by the railroads would put crops at risk by curtailing fertilizer shipments ahead of the spring planting season.

Addressing the Negative Impact

In March 2022, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) urged the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to address “significant rail service disruptions,” which have negatively impacted the nation’s supply chains. Following that letter, the STB was quick to react and scheduled public hearings held in late April. Those hearings featured shippers, rail labor unions and rail company executives.

The Agricultural Transportation Working Group (ATWG), a representative body made up of agriculture-oriented trade groups, including USW, sent a letter to the STB on April 21 and urged an immediate resolution to the “current nationwide freight rail service challenges.” The group urged the STB to take appropriate measures that would “deter, and hopefully prevent future service failures,” which include the establishment of reciprocal switching rules.

Additionally, USW filed joint comments to the STB hearing with the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the North American Millers’ Association (NAMA). The USW Transportation Working Group, led by North Dakota Wheat Commission Policy and Marketing Director Jim Peterson, also met with each member of the STB to share concerns regarding the current railroad challenges and to point out the benefits that competition-inducing policies provide, such as reciprocal switching.

A Welcome Sign

The orders issued by the Board last week are a welcome sign that rail customers like wheat farmers are being heard. U.S. Wheat Associates commends the STB’s initial steps and fast action and encourages further measures to improve rail logistics and hold railroads accountable to their customers.

The following are several other USW rail and rail performance stories since early 2020:

USW Transportation Group Supports Proposed Change In Rail Rate Review
Secondary Rail Rates, Tight Elevation Capacity Continue To Support Wheat Export Prices
Rail Merger Proposals Should Improve Competition, Hold Down Wheat Shipping Rates
Rail Rates Directly Affect Basis Values For Wheat Importers
Agriculture Calls On STB To Increase Rail Competition Following Executive Order
USW To Surface Transportation Board: “Uphold The Values Of Competition”

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst


U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) joined other major shipping groups this week in calling on the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to adopt policies that have the potential to lower costs and improve service for wheat rail shippers and their customers. The policy proposal, commonly referred to as “reciprocal switching,” has been under the STB’s consideration for some time.

Reciprocal switching seeks to provide rail shippers such as grain elevators who are commonly only served by one railroad access to ship on other railroads, provided they are located within a reasonable switching distance. The desired effect is the creation of competition between railroads, where previously there was none. That competition has the potential to lower costs for USW customers around the world.

What is Reciprocal Switching?

The STB defines reciprocal switching (sometimes referred to as competitive access) as follows: Under reciprocal switching, an incumbent carrier transports a shipper’s traffic to an interchange point, where it switches the rail cars over to the competing carrier. The competing carrier pays the incumbent carrier a switching fee for bringing or taking the cars from the shipper’s facility to the interchange point, or vice versa. The competing carrier’s total rate to the shipper incorporates the switching fee. Reciprocal switching thus enables a competing carrier to offer its own single-line rate to compete with the incumbent carrier’s single-line rate, even if the competing carrier’s lines do not physically reach a shipper’s facility.

Freight Waves, an online publication, defines this concept in simpler terms: reciprocal switching occurs when a shipper has access to one freight railroad but wants access to a nearby competing freight railroad to cultivate a competitive pricing environment. A shipper can get that access at an interchange between the two railroads.

An executive order by President Biden encouraged the STB  to “promote competition and economic opportunity,” and specifically to encourage reciprocal switching.

Seal of the Surface Transportation Board

The Surface Transportation Board is an independent federal agency charged with the economic regulation of various modes of surface transportation, primarily freight rail. STB held a hearing on proposed reciprocal switching regulations March 15 to 16, 2022, 

What USW Advocates

Except for the Pacific Northwest, U.S. wheat production is not close to river transportation, and export facilities are too far away to rely on trucking. As a result, railroads play a key role in the export supply system. Over the last decade, rail rates have increased exponentially, and rates to ship wheat are higher than for other commodities with similar handling characteristics.

USW’s comments filed with the STB noted those higher rates between 22% and 39% for wheat movements compared to corn in four major regions. A June 2017 USDA Agricultural Marketing Service study corroborated these results, finding no underlying cause driving the increases in wheat rates. These premiums relative to other commodities demonstrate the current market power of U.S. railroads and the lack of competition afforded to wheat shippers.

USW also encouraged the STB to consider other relevant factors as it considers a new policy, such as: (1) whether the arrangement would further the rail transportation policies in 49 U.S.C. § 10101; (2) the efficiency of the proposed route; (3) whether the arrangement would allow access to new markets; (4) the impacts, if any, of the arrangement on capital investment, quality of service, and employees; (5) the amount of traffic that would be moved under the arrangement; and (6) the impact, if any, of the arrangement on the rail transportation network.

U.S. Wheat Competitiveness

Reciprocal switching has existed in Canada for many years, called “interswitching.” The situation there makes a compelling comparison to the United States because the spring wheat and durum growing regions are similarly positioned in the country’s interior. And the shipping distances to export facilities are nearly identical. However, despite the similarities, work collected by one of USW’s member state wheat commissions showed comparable origin-to-export point rail moves in Canada were 30% less than similar U.S. moves at the time.

Differing government rail policies (including more favorable terms for reciprocal switching) are one of the few significant differences in market position between the two countries. USW also realizes that the competitive access benefits Canadian farmers enjoy will make the proposed merger of Canada’s CP railroad with the KCS more advantageous for Canadian growers – if the STB does not apply its standard to enhance competition.

More Efficient Competition

USW believes that implementing reciprocal switching will make the rail system more efficient. We hope it will compel the railroads to provide better service and be more prepared by introducing more competition into the rail industry.


In 2021, the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CP) announced plans to purchase the Kansas City Southern Railroad (KCS). After a few sidetracks, the proposed transaction is now under final review by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) to determine whether the two Class I railroads can merge. If successful, the new system will become the first tri-national railroad in North America.

On Feb. 22, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) filed comments with the STB, stating opposition to the rail merger as “inconsistent with the public interest.” USW also suggested that, should the merger proceed, the STB should impose certain conditions “to eliminate the adverse impacts this transaction will have on wheat shippers that are large rail shippers in the United States.”

Wheat Depends on Rail

Farmers export approximately 50% of their wheat crop each year. As such, U.S. farmers depend on the railroads to provide reliable and affordable access to export markets. Wheat farmers rely on the railroads in large part because of location. A significant volume of exportable wheat is grown in the Plains stretching from Montana to Texas and the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Rail transportation in the PNW is supported by regional river access to ports. Shippers in the Plains states are captive to rail freight through their distance from any genuine alternative.

In its comments to the Surface Transportation Board, USW noted that the market power held by the Class I railroads* has serious implications for U.S. wheat’s competitiveness compared to other major exporters. Rail rates over the last decade have increased exponentially, and rates for wheat are higher than rates for other commodities despite similar handling characteristics.

Where combination is possible, competition is impossible.” – George Stephenson, English Civil and Mechanical Engineer, known as “The Father of Railroads.”

Canadian Rail Advantages

The proposed transaction is especially relevant to U.S. wheat farmers as their Canadian competitors enjoy government protections that shippers in the United States do not. For example, the Canadian government enforces a Maximum Revenue Entitlement (MRE) on grain transportation to port facilities. This allows Canadian exporters to undercut U.S. exporters through rates set by statute instead of the market. During times of rail congestion, Canadian grain shippers have successfully lobbied their government to prioritize grain shipments over other sectors and have access to policies such as final offer rate arbitration and competitive switching. USW told the Surface Transportation Board if the merger would extend such treatment to the expanded CP line, Canadian shippers would enjoy an advantage that U.S. shippers under current conditions cannot.

The current KCS rail system also provides a direct link to the largest U.S. wheat importing customer, Mexico. Combining the two proposed rail lines will likely increase traffic and congestion on the combined network. In addition, nearly all Class I railroads have adopted a practice known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). USW suggested that practice actually created poorer service and higher rates for rail shippers over the last five years.

Map of the U.S. showing the rail system created by the Canadian Pacific Railroad purchase of Kansas City Southern Railroad

If approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the purchase of Kansas City Southern by Canadian Pacific Railroad would create the first tri-national railroad in North America.

Long History of Seeking Fairness

Arguments about rail competition today would not be unfamiliar across past generations of wheat farmers. Railroads have had a strong hand for a long time. During the industrial age, business interests sparred with the government over how to manage the expanding railroads.

The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was the first time Congress stepped in to regulate the railroads with “just and reasonable rate structures.” The railroad industry looks very different today. In 1980, the Staggers Rail Act made big changes to rail regulations. Infrastructure in the U.S. changed significantly in the decades between the two acts, necessitating changes to railroad oversight. Regulatory bodies meant to provide supervision have also changed. The Interstate Commerce Commission was abolished in 1996 and replaced with the Surface Transportation Board.

Enhancing Service

The STB must now answer a question it posed to railroads at the start of the 21st Century: “how to improve profitability through enhancing the service provided to their (railroads) customers.” Last summer, the Biden Administration directed the Surface Transportation Board to “promote competition and economic opportunity and to resist monopolization.”

In its comments filed this week, USW encouraged the STB to uphold the values of competition both for the wider railroad industry and in its oversight of “an economically sound and competitive rail transportation system.”

*There are currently seven Class 1 freight railroads in the U.S., a distinction defined by the railroads’ market capitalization.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst


Since late December, U.S. wheat futures prices moved down through mid-January and have bounced up and down since then. For example, prices surged early the week of January 24 but lost steam by the end of the week. And the March ’22 hard red winter future price lost 4% as of Wednesday’s close. Such wheat market volatility is a challenge for importers. And there are many elements adding volatility that deserve a closer look.

Chart shows weekly wheat futures closing prices from November 2021 through late January 2022 demonstrating wheat market volatility

There is Wheat Market Volatility in the weekly closing futures prices for soft red winter (CBOT), hard red winter (KCBT) and hard red spring (MGEX) between November 2021 and late January 2022. Source: USW Price Charting Tool.

Russia and Ukraine

The ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine has certainly added wheat market volatility. Both countries are major grain exporters, and the market seems to accept that any disruption there could have an immediate effect on supply. One grain trader quoted in AgriCensus said, “you cannot ignore [the topic], and [it] makes any trade decision very difficult to make … until things get clearer.”

But not everybody is so skittish. SoveEcon, a Russian agriculture consultancy, raised its forecast for 2021/22 Russian wheat exports by 200,000 metric tons to 34.4 million metric tons. The consultancy pointed out that the last time Russia invaded Ukraine, it did not disrupt grain exports. However, it did spark wheat market volatility as Black Sea wheat prices rose 25% in just two months.

Persistent Drought

Commercial futures trading also plays a role in wheat market volatility. The managed money takes quick profits that pressure the markets. But speculators also appear to be bullish in their wheat outlook primarily because of ongoing weather challenges to the old and new Northern Hemisphere wheat crops.

And yet a forecast for rain and snow in those areas this week prompted that significant drop in HRW futures prices. It is too early to say what the rest of 2022 has in store, but moisture is needed to put new crop winter wheat on a good footing. So, wheat importers can expect the market to continue moving with weather news.

The illustration of the 02022022 NOAA US Drought Monitor map shows persistent drought in key US wheat production areas contributing to wheat market volatility

Drought Persists in much of the U.S. Plains and Pacific Northwest wheat production regions. To help prepare for ongoing wheat market volatility, importers should monitor how this evaluation changes. Source: NOAA.

Logistic Challenges

Grain traders have had a lot to say recently about rail performance and its impact on export basis the last few months. Since December, a slowdown in rail logistics has supported wheat export basis. Fortunately, traders say those issues improved in January, but rail service for the trade is still behind where it was the year before.

According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. weekly rail traffic for the week ending January 15 was down 7% compared to the same week last year. All grain shipments, including wheat, were down 11% the same week. In the USDA’s weekly Transportation Report, bids for shuttle service in the secondary railcar market have been high, although down significantly from where they were at the beginning of January.

New Pandemic Normal?

Lastly, we look at the persistent presence of COVID-19. This is the third winter of pandemic-induced challenges. Though lockdowns are increasingly rare, pandemic disruptions continue to rattle parts of the marketplace. It continues to be a significant challenge for logistics. That includes worker shortages and increased absences. Supply chain bottle necks will likely continue to be part of the wheat market volatility equation in 2022.

Help is Available

As these forces continue to affect wheat market volatility, importers can be assured that the U.S. wheat store will remain open for efficient delivery of high-quality milling wheat. Our local U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) representatives are available to help buyers navigate the market’s challenges – and opportunities – no matter how much volatility it throws at them.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst


U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) works on behalf of U.S. wheat producers to help millers, bakers, wheat food processors and government officials understand the process of buying U.S. wheat at the best value possible.

The U.S. grain marketing system is reliable and transparent but can be complicated. So, USW keeps buyers and wheat food processors informed about the wide variety of U.S. wheat classes, how wheat moves to export markets as well as current crop quality and prices.

Interactive map to help when buying U.S. wheat

USW has developed an interactive map of regional U.S. wheat production by class and how it is transported to export terminals.

As part of a recent seminar for overseas buyers, USW Vice President and West Coast Office Director Steve Wirsching recorded a presentation titled “U.S. Wheat Market Overview.” From how regional climate affects wheat quality and USW’s process for sharing estimated export prices to how export basis regulates the flow of grain to market and the role of the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS), Wirsching provides an important primer for buying U.S. wheat.

Many Resources for Buyers

Click on the image below to see the entire presentation that was used in the buyer’s seminar in July 2021. Additional information is always available online. And most importantly, USW representatives in 13 offices around the world, are always ready to help our customers, through trade service and technical support, making buying U.S. wheat a rewarding experience.