Railways say they’re ready to move grain

A late start to the shipping season, big crop and the forecast for a 
harsh winter are combining to challenge the railway

Canada’s railways are still ready to move Western Canada’s grain crop despite forecasts for a harsh winter.

Poor weather has delayed harvest in parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta, resulting in a slow start to the 2016-17 shipping season, but grain companies and the railways are still expecting farmers will harvest in the low- to mid-70-million-tonne range.

The varying quality of the crop could complicate shipping logistics, Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA), which represents the main grain companies, said in an interview Oct. 18.

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“If the grain is more homogeneous then you have more flexibility on where you draw it from to meet the specifications on the vessel,” Sobkowich said. “When we have quality issues in certain places… it has to be more precise, to bring that grain in from different areas to meet specifications.”

Farmers and grain companies hope to avoid the shipping delays that occurred in 2013-14, following the harvest of a record 76-million-tonne crop and the coldest winter in 100 years.

The Rocky Mountains will get lots of snow and Prairies face bitter cold, AccuWeather said in a news release last week. Both can make shipping grain by rail more difficult. Excessive snow has to be removed from tracks and can result in avalanches, while cold weather makes it hard for rail air brakes to work properly and often means shorter trains.

The start of the season will feature occasional intrusions of chilly air, but the overall pattern will favour windier and milder conditions in cities such as Calgary and Edmonton, according to AccuWeather.

“A pattern change by mid-winter will likely send waves of very cold arctic air directed into the southern Prairies for January and February,” AccuWeather senior meteorologist Brett Anderson said.

Temperatures of -25 or colder does result in shorter trains, but warmer than that it’s normal railroading, CP president and chief operating officer Keith Creel said in an interview Oct. 20.

Keith Creel

Keith Creel

“I can tell you we take a lot of steps to prepare as much as we can,” Creel said.

That includes having all locomotives with distributive power, allowing them to be inserted mid-train to improve air brake performance, he said.

CN Rail is geared up too, corporate development manager Greg Hamilton told the Fields on Wheels grain transportation conference in Winnipeg Oct. 21.

“CN is well prepared to meet the challenge,” he said.

All its cars have been deployed, including 700 repaired government-owned hopper cars. Locomotives have been brought into service as well as crew, Hamilton said.

Most CN grain will move under commercial contracts, which is new this crop year, he added.

CN is committed to moving up to 5,500 grain cars a week, but the number is expected to drop to 4,000 during the winter, Hamilton said.

Both railways are disappointed with the slow start to grain movement this crop year. That’s often the case, Creel said, which means wasted shipping capacity.

“Maybe Wade (Sobkowich of the WGEA) could let me know how to better understand what they were doing to fill the grain bins the first six or seven weeks of the year because certainly we have no grain to move in the rail cars,” Creel said. “It is a missed opportunity for everyone.”

“The numbers do speak for themselves,” Sobkowich said. “CP came out with a news release that talked about the drawn-out harvest and implied that there is not enough grain for it to move right now. My response to that is that CP should worry about moving the grain that is already in the elevator before it worries about moving the grain that is still in the field.”

The Ag Transport Coalition says the last four weeks CP supplied 75 per cent of the hopper cars ordered by grain companies, resulting in week nine in unfilled shipper demand of more than 1,500 cars. CN car fulfilment percentage was in the 93 to 95 per cent range during the same period.

Creel said 75 per cent of CP’s grain is now moving under its Dedicated Train Program, first introduced last year, and aren’t captured by the coalition’s weekly reports.

“We are not comparing apples to apples,” he said.

According to Sobkowich the coalition’s data includes all CP’s grain shipped by coalition members representing 92 per cent of total western grain movement, including grain shipped through the Dedicated Train Program.

CP has created a new weekly scoreboard available at cpr.ca/grain. It reports how many tonnes of grain CP moved by corridor. It also compares the current week’s movement to the previous week and the same week a year ago. The report also comments on factors, including weather, that affected grain movement.

“We created the scorecard… because of, quite frankly, all the rhetoric and misinformation that WGEA has spawned, which irritates the farmers who are our partners,” Creel said. “It irritates the grain companies and it irritates the government. We felt the best thing we can do is to be transparent and report back, not rhetoric.”

The Ag Transport Coalition says it created its weekly reports on car order fulfilment to publicly track and report railway performance.

All partners in the grain chain must have realistic expectations and co-operate, Creel said.

“At the end of the day Canada is a world supplier of grain and the Canadian farmer is our partner. They benefit from the low cost of transportation. That is what enables us to compete in the world market. Beating up the folks who are making that possible I just don’t think it’s very productive. I’m all for the farmers and I am all for high yields. I’m all for higher prices and higher-quality grain. Those interests serve us well. We are partners not enemies.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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