Continued problems with rail service will be on the table next week as farmers, shippers, fertilizer firms and others have the chance to meet privately with federal officials.

The Surface Transportation Board that regulates railroads will conduct "informal and confidential" meetings in half-hour segments on Wednesday, May 14, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel & Suites in Bloomington near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport.

Leaders from the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and other groups testified last month in Washington, D.C., that changes in rail availability are crippling the region's vital agricultural exports. They and others complained that Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the dominant railroad in the region, had allocated too many locomotives and engineers to the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota at the expense of farmers.

South Dakota corn growers said the resulting shortage of rail services meant that millions of bushels of corn sitting in grain elevators and on farms could not get shipped to the Pacific Northwest for export or to closer destinations to feed ethanol plants. Another concern is possible localized shortages of fertilizer that may develop as the planting season gets underway.

BNSF officials denied that the railroad was favoring crude oil shipments over agricultural shippers, and that a combination of severe winter weather and record-level crops had caused the backups. They have also pledged to restore service levels.

Staff from the Board's Rail Customer and Public Assistance Program (RCPA) have already held similar meetings to hear from farm groups and others in Fargo in March and in Sioux Falls, S.D. on May 6.

Those wishing to schedule meetings in Bloomington can email their requests, which the RCPA will keep confidential, to by the close of business on Monday, May 12.

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