NDSU Professor Who Pulled Rail Delays Study Works As Consultant For BNSF

The mystery of the pulled NDSU study into the economic impacts of rail delays on agriculture persists.

Last week we learned that North Dakota State University had pulled study detailing revenue losses to farmers because of rail delays just “days” after it was issued. Yet, despite the study being pulled, politicians such as Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Governor Jack Dalrymple continued to cite it.

Heitkamp referenced the study in press releases sent out on August 11th and August 28th. Governor Jack Dalrymple cited the study in testimony before the Surface Transportation Board. which is holding hearings on rail delays, earlier this month.

In fact, Senator Heitkamp told Valley News Live’s Chris Berg on camera (video here) that she feels the studies findings continue to be largely accurate.

So what gives?

Well, maybe there’s a conflict of interest.

“It was released as a preliminary set of results,” NDSU Professor William Wilson told Grand Forks Herald reporter Brandi Jewett last week. “Upon review, the decision was made to withdraw the study.”

Wilson hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with details about why the study was pulled. “William Wilson…said Thursday that the study headed by crop economist Frayne Olson was done on short notice and included a couple of assumptions that were ‘probably not appropriate or defendable,’ so the report was pulled,” reported Dave Kolpack for the Associated Press, also last week.

That’s not exactly a ray of sunshine onto what, specifically, was wrong with the report.

But who is William Wilson? Would you believe me if I told you that in addition to being a NDSU professor, he’s a long-time consultant for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, which you could say sort of has an interest in this rail delays dispute?

According to a 2011 resume posted on Wilson’s NDSU profile (it’s apparently his latest version), he has worked on-and-off as a consultant for BNSF since 1988. The most recent consulting work listed on the resume for BNSF was in 2007, but we know that Wilson has a current relationship with BNSF because he’s filed documents with the Surface Transportation Board – as recently as August 25th of this year – on behalf of BNSF in the review of rail shipment delays.

“Through governmental fiat, rates for grain transportation have been kept down, but the result has been a grain transportation network that is characterized by excessive costs, lengthy delays and a grain car fleet that has had to be funded directly by the government(s) and that is now aging and needing more intervention,” Wilson wrote in his Verified Statement filed by legal counsel for BNSF with the Surface Transportation Board.

This means that Wilson, who made the decision to pull the study quantifying the economic impacts of rail delays on the agriculture industry that was presented to the Surface Transportation Board, is working for one of the railroads to make their case to that same Surface Transportation Board.

Did Wilson’s work for Burlington Northern influence his decision-making process with regard to the study? Who knows.

I’ve now sent two emails to Wilson’s NDSU account seeking comment on his decision to pull the study and his relationship with BNSF – one sent four days ago and one sent today – and so far I’ve received no response.

An open records request filed four days ago for emails from Wilson’s NDSU account filed with the university’s general counsel Chris Wilson has also not received a response.

I should note that in reading Wilson’s statement to the STB about rail delays, I found myself largely agreeing with it. Maybe his arguments on behalf of BNSF are right. But that doesn’t excuse what appears to be the spiking of a study about rail delays and their impact on current agricultural revenues.

Update: Frayne Olson, the guy who actually produced the report, tells Ag Week that he stands behind his numbers.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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