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REGIONAL REPORT / VANISHING RAILROADS : Lentil Farmers Fight to Keep Vital Service : Union Pacific calls Washington routes unprofitable. Growers see higher shipping costs if lines are shut.

June 20, 1990|TED CILWICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PULLMAN, Wash. — At first blush, these are boom times on the Palouse for farmers and the railroad that carries their peas and lentils to market.

Washington-grown lentils in 1989 filled 308 freight cars bound for foreign export--a 51% increase over 1988 crops. This year, Union Pacific Railroad Co. and commodity shippers agree that at least 331 rail cars will be needed to carry the harvest.

Union Pacific, which posted a $547-million profit in 1989, can't keep up with the demand for rail cars. And the railroad's chief competitors here, barge haulers and truckers, are facing higher river fees and gasoline taxes.

Why, then, does Union Pacific want to abandon 69 miles of track on the Palouse, Washington's agricultural southeast corner where the rolling hills, come harvest, are crested with golden waves of grain?

Farmers and shippers, pushing back their sweat-stained caps to scratch their heads, are puzzled and fearful.

"It doesn't wash," said Dan Bruce, president of BNP Lentil of Farmington, the largest of a dozen shippers on the two lines Union Pacific wants to abandon.

BACKGROUND: In May, Union Pacific and opponents of the plan aired their arguments in a public hearing before an Interstate Commerce Commission administrative judge in Pullman. Whatever the judge's decision, expected in July, it is likely to be appealed to the five-member commission.

The railroads abandoned 29,127 miles of track across America between 1980 and 1988, including about 1,400 rail miles in Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of the track consisted of short-haul branch lines.

When the railroad pulls out, shipping costs usually rise as farmers are forced to turn to trucking. Here, it could be the death knell.

"The higher transportation costs associated with long-haul trucking of peas and lentils from this part of the country would price local producers and shippers out of business," said Wesley Kriebel, a USDA analyst.

Loss of rail service erodes both economic and social life in rural communities. For instance, some feel that The Frying Pan, a homey cafe in Farmington a few hundred yards from the track, is threatened. Lack of a railroad also puts added stress on deteriorating rural roads and bridges, critics of the railroad say.

Without access to rail shipping, "the town may blow away," farmer Steve Appel of Endicott, Wash., said at the hearing.

POLITICS: In southeast Washington, Union Pacific is up against more than the usual predictions of gloom and doom down on the farm. The 300 farmers affected by the proposed abandonment are represented by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley; and their U.S. senator, Brock Adams, was secretary of transportation in the Jimmy Carter Administration. Both Democrats oppose the rail service cutback.

Union Pacific executives say that the Tekoa and Pleasant Valley lines will lose more than $102,000 this year.

"Peas and lentils are not enough," railroad spokesman John Bromley said.

Meanwhile, the farmers and shippers and their Chicago lawyer insist that the railroad's strategy is to run the lines in the red to justify abandoning them.

In questioning Union Pacific witnesses at the hearing, the attorney, Thomas McFarland, established that, although the railroad canceled Saturday runs in 1989, three-man crews still were routinely paid $340 a day for those runs. And the railroad frequently uses two locomotives when only one is necessary.

Bromley said that the railroad has been hurt in recent years because it lost its wheat business to barges on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

McFarland said the shift to water transport was precipitated two years ago, when Union Pacific raised its rates for hauling wheat.

Denver Tolliver, a North Dakota economist who testified for the pea and lentil growers, calculated that the two lines would produce a $41,000 annual profit if management and accounting practices were altered.

The allegations and issues raised in the Palouse abandonment are similar to those aired in Idaho. Union Pacific last year received ICC approval to abandon track servicing 200 farmers in that state's Teton Valley.

FEELING SQUEEZED: Farmers like Burt Phillips, who grows barley and wheat on 1,400 acres in Tetonia, said that they are feeling the pinch of higher trucking rates. Phillips said that trucking his grain to a distant railhead now costs him $5,000 more a year.

"Countries like Brazil, they can't get their commodities to market because they don't have the infrastructure," Phillips said. "We've got . . . the railroads, and we're tearing them down. It just doesn't make sense."

Union Pacific's Bromley said of the railroad's detractors:

"They're looking for a villain, and that's human nature. We're not in business to go out of business. We're in business to make a profit."

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