American grain is pouring through Northwest ports to overseas markets at an unprecedented rate. Moving that corn and wheat from the US heartland to foreign consumers more efficiently than ever before is an industry that for the past few decades has seldom been praised for progress -- the railroads.
At the Continental Grain Company terminal at the Port of Tacoma, the grain cars move in a relentless stream toward the waiting ships. At any given time there may be more than 400 such cars either in the yard or en route, carrying thousands of bushels of Midwestern corn for the Far East.
When one ship is filled, another quickly takes its place to take on another load of feed grain bound for Japan, China, or other ports of the Pacific Rim.
This modern terminal, built in 1975, can load 13,000 tons of corn during a single eight- hour shift. Except for periods of maintenance, it is busy 16 hours a day, seven days a week, said plant manager Mahlon Wavra.
In the past year, Tacoma moved about 6 million tons of corn, a figure 35 percent higher than 1979. The Port of Seattle exported 3 million tons of grain, for a 75 percent increase.
Ten years ago, Tacoma handled only a little more than 6,000 grains cars annually. By the end of 1979 this figure had grown to more than 47,000. Other Pacific Coast ports reported similar, if less spectacular, growth.
Congestion in the Panama Canal is one reason for the export surge. More important, experts say, is the new way grain is shipped to the Pacific Coast in "unit trains." These all- grain trains are routed directly from the point of origin in the Midwest over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest.
The Union Pacific Railroad started sending unit trains to Tacoma about a year and a half ago. The Burlington Northern Railroad started unit trains for corn last August and for wheat in December 1980.
Both railroads have been buying thousands of covered hopper cars, and that has helped alleviate what was a serious rail-car shortage more than a year ago.
But even though the railroads have been adding new cars at a steady clip, the real increases in tonnage have come from more efficient management of these cars , Burlington Northern vice-president Lawrence Kiser said at a recent seminar for wheat farmers.
The railroads are rapidly moving away from serving small grain elevators that can fill just one or perhaps two grain cars, he said.
Instead, it is encouraging the concept of grain subterminals located along the main line that can fill whole trains.
To accomplish this, the Burlington Northern last year introduced a three-tier rate structure giving the lowest rates to those customers that can fill an entire 54-car unit train, the next lowest to those that fill a 26-car train, and the highest to those that load single cars.
Because of greater efficiency of use, the Burlington Northern has been able to make across-the-board rate cuts to all users.
Since these changes were made, the railroad has cut the time it takes the average car to get from Omaha to Seattle by more than half, Mr. Kiser said, and increased the use of each car from an average of 15 to 22 round trips annually.
As is often the case, someone has to pay a price for this progress. In this instance, it is the farmers. They must haul their grain farther by truck -- to new central grain subterminals as the railroads progressively abandon out-of-the-way branch lines, especially those where the roadb eds are too weak to support the heavy unit trains.