Where do covered hopper cars filled with grain go to anyway and what happens to them?

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punchy71

New Member
Greetings,
I was wondering if somebody could tell what happens to all these long strings of covered hopper cars filled with grain such as wheat? Where are they going to anyway? What happens when they get there? Once empty hoppers get filled with grain at a grain elevator, I haven't a clue what happens next in the ordinary scheme of things...
Thank you
 

kenw

5th Generation Texian
Normally (there are always exceptions) loaded grain trains start at the big elevators where trucks have offloaded from the farms in the area. The elevators take in smaller quantities and hold it until they have enough for a train load. From the elevators, trains will take them to places where it is either used or, in most cases, exported. Grain for export will be headed to ports such as Seattle, Los Angeles or Houston. At the port the grain will be placed in large ships to be carried to other countries. For example, most of the grain exported thru Houston goes to South America and Africa.
 
Where I live between Tacoma and Seattle, I see multiple daily unit grain, coal and crude oil trains headed for ports and overseas export. There are other unit trains of very compacted garbage, automobiles and trucks, standard shipping containers full of anything that'll fit or empty that are being returned to their originating ports to be refilled. For every car with a load, there has to be a backhaul for new cargo so there's always a lot of empty cars as well. Railroads like carloads of bulk cargo because they can assemble a single train to a single destination. Sometimes even their own locomotives carry the trains over other railroad lines to complete a journey without having to wait for a different set of power; the next railroad line simply supplies their own crews.

Like standard gauge track, standard couplers and air brake systems and many other standardized hardware and practices, this makes the railroads more efficient and competitive against other methods of transportation like trucks, barges and ships and pipelines.
 

punchy71

New Member
The elevators take in smaller quantities and hold it until they have enough for a train load. From the elevators, trains will take them to places where it is either used or, in most cases, exported. .
...you says that most of the grain gets taken to ports for export, but in the minority of cases then, it stays in the country of origin, in this case the U.S. and gets used how and for what? Let's take wheat grain for example...
 

Bill Anderson

Well-Known Member
...you says that most of the grain gets taken to ports for export, but in the minority of cases then, it stays in the country of origin, in this case the U.S. and gets used how and for what? Let's take wheat grain for example...
Someone has already explained the use of grain as livestock feed. Take a trip to your local supermarket to see the many food products made from grain in the US.

There are other industries which use grain. I believe there are chemicals derived from grain that used in the paint industry as stabilizers and pigments.
 

BN9244

New Member
It all depends on the type of grain. Some commodities are heavily exported, while others tend to stay in the U.S. I work in the rail transportation department for one of the largest grain companies in the U.S., so I see on a daily basis where a lot of this stuff goes. The big three commodities are corn, soybeans, and wheat (there are four types of wheat: Spring, Winter, Durum, and White)

- Corn can go one of many ways: Export through elevators in the PNW and Texas/Louisiana Gulf, export to Mexico, or to domestic customers such as ethanol plants and feed lots.
- Soybeans are mainly exported through ports in the PNW and Texas/Louisiana Gulf or across the border to Mexico. The rest is used domestically for biodiesel plants or soybean oil processors
- Wheat is roughly a 60/40 split. 60% tends to stay in the U.S. for flour mills, the rest is exported either to Mexico or through elevators in the PNW, Gulf, or Duluth/Superior to a lessor extent.

Others:

- Barley: There seems to be two grades of barley, lower grade Barley is used for animal feed while higher grade is for Malting. The vast majority is used domestically.
- Canola: A majority of the Canola I see is used domestically by oilseed processing companies. Some canola is exported through Duluth/Superior.
- Milo: Don't see a whole lot of this one, but the majority is exported through the Gulf. Some does stay domestically (mills of some sort use it, not sure for what though)
- Flax: Not very common, but generally used domestically.
- Sunflowers: Domestically for oilseed processing or confectionary uses.
- Peas/Lentils: I believe a fair amount is moved by rail to the Seattle/Tacoma area, where it is transloaded into containers and sent to Asia. The rest is used domestically.

This should give you a rough idea of what goes where. There are other types of grain out there, but I see very little of them so I left them out (Oats, Rye, and Millett for example). And, while my employer deals with all sort of grains, some are dealt with more so than others. For example, we don't deal much with Flax, so my example does not necessarily mean all Flax is used domestically.


Hope this helps!
 

Bill Anderson

Well-Known Member
Thanks for this overview of grain shipping in the US.

I know that the Sacramento area is one of the largest rice producing areas in the world, but I don't recall hearing much about rail shipment of rice when I lived in the area. Does anyone know how California rice is shipped?
 

Birken Vogt

New Member
I am pretty sure most rice gets trucked to the port of Sacramento and loaded directly on ships, or trucked to domestic packing plants where it is packaged for sale. There may not be a need to take a trainload of it anywhere, in bulk at least. The grain elevators I know of do not have rail service, but they used to.
 




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