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Union Pacific ordered to fix rail service to Foster Farms

STB grants Foster Farms an emergency order after weeks of feed delays.

2 Lisa Selfie December 2020 Headshot

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) wants Union Pacific (UP) to address rail service issues raised by Foster Farms.

Foster Farms filed a petition for emergency service before the board on December 29, noting continued service deterioration.

On January 3, STB issued an emergency order to force UP to haul corn and grain to California to prevent millions of chickens and cattle belonging to Foster Farms from starving.

Rail service problems began in October

According to the Foster Farms' December 29 petition, the company said an emergency service order is necessary because of the “substantial, measurable deterioration of rail service” by UP to Foster Farms’ Traver, Turlock, and Delhi facilities beginning October 2022.

Foster Farms said corn delivered by UP is used exclusively to feed hundreds of thousands of cattle and millions of chickens, which are raised for the purpose of providing food supplies.

According to Foster Farms, “the lack of sufficient deliveries of unit trains in October and November resulted in feed stocks dwindling to critically low levels." Inventory levels have continued to dwindle in December.

Foster Farms said it has supplemented UP deliveries with corn shipped on BNSF Railway Company (BNSF), which was then transloaded onto trucks at locations within driving distance to Foster Farms’ facilities, and purchased extra unit trains on the secondary market.

Foster Farms also said it has cut off feed to the dairy cattle to preserve corn for feeding the chickens, which are more susceptible to starvation. The company believes that those efforts, however, will be exhausted by January 7, 2023.

Foster Farms petition requests

In its petition, Foster Farms requested for a period of at least 30 days, that STB direct UP to:

  1. Prioritize the assignment of crews to Foster Farms’ unit trains at loading origins
  2. Prioritize the transportation of Foster Farms’ unit trains on UP’s system with the goal of minimizing the extent to which the crews on such trains “time out” under the Hours of Service rules, thereby enabling the train to complete its movement from origin to destination without stopping, the crew departing, and then waiting for a new crew
  3. Assign and retain sufficient locomotives to Foster Farms’ trains at loading origins to ensure that once a Foster Farms train is loaded there is sufficient locomotive power for the unit train to immediately begin its trip to Foster Farms’ Traver, Turlock, and Delhi facilities
  4. Provide STB with daily status reports over the 30-day period regarding the delivery of Foster Farms’ trains, to include the number of trains and cars billed to Foster Farms’ Traver, Turlock, and Delhi facilities, and actual performance versus trip plan data for these shipments.

UP response to petition

UP filed a reply with STB. According to UP, Foster Farms’ current crisis is largely the result of extreme winter weather that has affected many rail shippers.

According to reports, UP warned that continued inclement weather along the rail routes may bring further delays, and could force Foster Farms to continue emergency measures of trucking in more expensive feed rather than using its rail system.

“Last month’s extreme cold and blizzard conditions slowed deliveries in 20 of the 23 western states the railroad operates in, and additional problems are possible because of the forecast for more severe winter weather,” said Union Pacific spokesman Mike Jaixen. “Union Pacific remains committed to serving all of our customers as efficiently as possible, including Foster Farms, weather permitting.”

UP said at the time of the petition, there were currently five loaded trains destined to Foster Farms’ facilities in Traver, Turlock, and Delhi that would arrive between December 31, 2022, and January 3, 2023.

UP argued that delivery of these trains will resolve Foster Farms’ immediate issue, and STB, therefore, should monitor UP’s efforts to deliver the trains before deciding whether to impose a service order.

Foster Farms attorney Thomas Wilcox said in a letter to regulators that the company has little faith that UP will deliver on its promises because the railroad has failed to deliver any of its grain trains on time in the past two weeks.

STB order to UP

STB’s response — an order issued Friday — calls for UP to deliver specific train sets of animal feed to Foster Farms on the time schedule specified by UP in order to avert a potential significant loss of livestock in California.

STB is also requiring UP to provide a status update to the board by January 3 and to inform the board and Foster Farms in writing of any need to deviate from its proposed schedules.

UP received previous orders to deliver feed to Foster Farms

This is the second time in the past year -- because of similar service issues with Foster Farms -- that STB has issued an emergency service order. On June 17, 2022, STB directed UP to adhere to specific service commitments and report regularly to the board during this period.

On July 1, 2022, the board extended the emergency service oversight period through July 17, 2022, and on July 20, 2022, the board determined that the docket would be left open through January 20, 2023, in the event that further action is necessary.

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