FOR the first time in the four-year history of the Soy Transportation Coalition's (STC) annual "Railroad Report Card," agricultural shippers named CSX Transportation as the top-performing railroad in the U.S.
The company outdid Union Pacific, the top-ranked railroad in both 2011 and 2012, while Norfolk Southern Railway climbed one spot to third place.
Survey respondents ranked Canadian Pacific in last place for the third year in a row.
STC assembles its report card after surveying agricultural shippers of varying sizes and scale of operations, asking shippers to respond to the same set of 11 questions. Questions are categorized under on-time performance, customer service and costs, and shippers are asked to rate each of the seven Class I railroads operating in the country.
Taking the top spot, CSX received the highest ranking in six of the 11 questions, and its overall rating improved 11%.
In general terms, railroads were viewed more favorably in the 2013 survey, receiving an average score that was 2.5% higher than in the 2012 edition.
"We are encouraged that agricultural shippers are overall more satisfied with the rail service they receive," STC chair Pat Knouff said. "For farmers to be profitable, having a responsive and reliable freight rail system is essential."
Knouff said agricultural freight rail volumes are expected to increase, based on a January study conducted by TRC Consulting. The study projected that rail's share of agricultural commodities shipped, compared with other modes of transportation, will grow from 30% to 35% by 2035, with the agricultural market growing by more than 2% per year.
STC estimated that more than 900 million bu. of U.S. soybeans are shipped by rail annually. By the 2020-21 marketing year, the total volume of soybeans shipped by rail is projected to hit 1.4 billion bu.
Even so, the drought of 2012 took a toll on agricultural freight volumes that lingered well into 2013.
According to the Association of American Railroads, U.S. grain shipments registered a decline of almost 10% in the first six months of 2013, although that was largely offset by 64% growth in grain shipments from Mexico.
While most Class I railroads saw an overall increase in volume in the first half of the year, Union Pacific actually reported a decline in its total volume, which was due to the sharp drop in grain shipments.