National News

Railroads try to avoid another Dakota bottleneck

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-01-12 11:42

Railroads and rail shippers are trying to figure out how to prevent a repeat of last year's troubles in the Dakotas.

When demand and bad weather joined to make a perfect storm, farmers had a lot of trouble getting railroads to ship their crops to market. There was too much competition for locomotives and crews between South Dakota farmers and oil producers in North Dakota.

“Agriculture was derailed by big oil interests," says Dennis Jones, a corn farmer in Bath, South Dakota. "We were basically shoved off the tracks.”

Jones says South Dakota farmers produced a bumper crop in 2014, and the North Dakota oil fields were going gangbusters, too. The railroads couldn’t ship all that stuff, and Jones says they had to make a choice.

“The railroad got paid a lot more for shipping oil," he says. "Grain cars were unhooked so the locomotives could hook onto oil and pull more oil."

The railroads say they didn’t favor oil over agricultural products. They say last year’s shipping problems were caused by one of the most severe winters in decades. But it is true that they can charge more to ship certain things, if there’s competition and those products could be shipped another way, by, for example, truck or water.  

In that case, “the railroad can set any price they want to, anywhere, anytime, and they do,” says Denver Tolliver, director of the Upper Great Plains  Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University. 

He says shippers can complain to the federal Surface Transportation Board if they think the railroads are charging too much.  But not many do, because it’s a complicated, expensive and slow process.  

It wasn’t always this way. 

Railroads and their rates used to be very tightly regulated. But they were deregulated in the 1980s, after railroads were devastated by a growing trucking industry. 

 “There was a time when you used to have what’s called standing derailments,” says Frank Mulvey, a semi-retired economist who spent about a decade at the Surface Transportation Board. “The railroad infrastructure was so badly deteriorated that trains that weren’t even moving, standing on tracks – waiting on tracks – would fall over.”

Mulvey says some railroads went bankrupt.  Those that were left improved tracks and bridges, and became viable, strong companies – strong enough to turn back recent attempts at re-regulation.

“The railroads have been very, very successful as a lobbying organization,” Mulvey says.

In fact, one railroad, BNSF, spent more than $2.5 million dollars on political contributions during the 2014 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The railroads say they can provide good service without more regulation. 

So far so good this year, in the Dakotas. There’s still a lot of oil being shipped out of North Dakota. But it’s balanced out by falling demand from farmers, like Jones, who won’t ship their corn at today’s low prices.

“You’re selling corn today at below the cost of production," Jones says. "It would be suicidal almost – financial suicide – to sell it below your cost of production."

Jones says farmers won’t ship their corn until prices go up.  The railroads say they’ll be ready for the corn shipments, even if they start this winter. BNSF says it's added snow-removal crews and equipment and heaters on some rail switches.

U.Va. Reinstates Fraternity Accused In 'Rolling Stone' Rape Story

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 11:26

Phi Kappa Psi was at the center of a story alleging a 2012 gang rape at its house at the University of Virginia. The fraternity has consistently denied that events detailed in the article took place.

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Sandwich Monday: The White Castle Veggie Slider

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 10:55

For this week's Sandwich Monday, we try a new sandwich for vegetarians: the White Castle Veggie Slider. It's a mini-burger made with carrots, broccoli and other veggies.

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'Charlie Hebdo's' Next Issue Will Feature Prophet Muhammad Cartoons

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 10:53

The gunmen who attacked the French magazine last week said they had "avenged" the prophet as they left the scene. The magazine frequently targeted religion – including Islam and its prophet.

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Albuquerque Police Officers Face Murder Charges Over 2014 Shooting

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 10:24

James Boyd, 38, was killed after being confronted for illegally camping in the city's foothills. Months later, two officers who shot him are being charged with murder.

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Cuba Frees 53 Political Prisoners As Part Of Deal, U.S. Says

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 10:11

A senior administration official said Cuba has made good on conditions of last month's historic agreement to begin normalizing ties with the U.S.

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CentCom's Twitter Feed, YouTube Channel Hacked

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 09:30

The hackers then put out Islamic State propaganda and published what they purported was a phone list of retired U.S. generals.

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What World Leaders Say, And What They Do

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 09:26

Many leaders have criticized the attacks in Paris. How does this square with their own records on freedom of the press and human rights?

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Duncan's Post-NCLB Vision Maintains Testing

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 08:59

The Education Secretary calls for scrapping the "tired" No Child Left Behind law — but advocates keeping annual tests.

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What Might Be Missing From MyPlate? Water

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 08:14

Since the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, more evidence has piled up showing the benefits of drinking water and the risks of sugary beverages. So scientists say it's time for a water symbol on MyPlate.

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Quiz: What matters most in online education?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-01-12 08:07

U.S. News & World Report released rankings for more than 1,200 online programs.

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Ford's New Aluminum F-150, VW Golf Take Top Detroit Auto Show Honors

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 07:44

Also notable was the unveiling of General Motors' all-electric Chevrolet Bolt concept car, which seems a clear rival to the Tesla.

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Pakistani School, At Center Of Taliban Massacre, Reopens

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 07:23

Taliban militants killed about 150 people at the military school in an attack last month. Students returned Monday amid heavy security.

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5 Years After Haiti's Earthquake, Where Did The $13.5 Billion Go?

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 07:06

Governments and nonprofits have insisted on keeping control of their projects in Haiti. So projects have cost several times more than they should. And Haiti is a long way from "building back better."

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Your Online Avatar May Reveal More About You Than You Think

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 06:46

Even if your avatar for games and social media doesn't look at all like you, it still says a lot about your personality, a study finds. Want to look friendly? Skip the shades, wear a sweater.

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NPR Appoints Longtime Print Reporter As New Ombudsman

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 05:35

Elizabeth Jensen, who has written extensively about public broadcasting, says she is keen to explain NPR's journalistic choices to the public and offer criticism when warranted.

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NYPD Officers Have Faced Light Punishments For Chokeholds, Report Finds

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 04:51

The Inspector General found chokeholds were sometimes used as a first act of physical force and in the 10 cases reviewed, most officers were given light punishments.

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Meet The Classroom Of The Future

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 03:28

When a computer runs a classroom, is it more efficient? Do kids learn more? A middle school in New York is finding out.

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Kerry Announces Paris Trip, Brushes Off Criticism On Missing March

NPR News - Mon, 2015-01-12 03:01

The Obama administration was criticized for not sending a high-ranking official to a unity rally in Paris. The British, German, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were all at the march.

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PODCAST: Golf greens go green

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-01-12 03:00

First up, we have a preview of the North American International Auto Show. Plus, the first-ever college football playoff championship game is played Monday under the most generic name possible: the College Football Playoff Championship Game. We look at the marketing strategy behind the non-name. And since the recession, hundreds golf courses have been closed in the U.S.—but what happens to all that green? Turns some golf courses are going even greener— in some cases they're getting turned into wetlands by conversation groups.