Photo: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, 2011.
The grain elevator is a fundamental element of the structuring effect of rail on the resource landscape through the dynamics of collection, sorting, and distribution of grain in agricultural regions. The terminal is simply a rail spur where grain wagons can be loaded on the side of the facility. Grain is brought by truck to the facility, where it will be sorted and stored by type. Large grain unit trains can be assembled to carry the output of a series of grain elevators to port facilities and then to international markets.
When introduced in the 19th century, there was roughly a grain elevator and its associated rail terminal every 10 to 15 km along a rail line. This represented the radius around which agricultural resources could effectively be collected by road transportation. Three significant processes transformed this spatial relation by reducing the number of terminals required to collect the output of agricultural regions. The first was the general improvement in road transportation, which enabled carrying agricultural commodities in greater quantities, over longer distances, and at a lower cost. The second was the application of economies of scale in rail transportation, enabling the assembly of longer unit trains. Better services and lower transport rates were offered to facilities that could handle a greater amount of rail cars at their siding. The third involved changes in the commercial environment with agricultural ownership and practices towards corporate farming as well as rail deregulation, where rail companies abandoned several unprofitable services, including spurs to smaller grain elevators.