Cold weather hurt Canadian National Railway’s (CN) grain-shipping performance week 29 (Feb. 10 to 16), but it’s confident it can quickly catch up.
“Last week was a pretty tough week,” Sean Finn, CN’s executive vice-president of corporate services and chief legal officer, said in an interview Feb. 23.
Temperatures across much of Western Canada fell below -25 C. When that happens it’s hard to keep train brake line pressure up. To ensure safety trains are shortened and travel at lower speeds.
“So for the same amount of grain you need more locomotives and crews because the trains are just shorter,” Finn said. “We hit that point a couple of times in late January and in late February.”
In its week 29 report the Ag Transport Coalition (ATC) said CN supplied 64 per cent of the grain cars ordered for that week.
Canadian Pacific Railway filled 52 per cent of its orders.
“Last week we couldn’t get to where we wanted to get to,” Finn said. “We met our targets of at least 4,000 carloads. We are meeting our targets, but our targets aren’t our only measurement of success.”
CN has said it will deliver at 4,000 cars a week to grain shippers during winter and 5,500 the rest of the year.
The ATC report says shipper demand on CN lines week 29 exceeded 4,000 cars for the fifth consecutive week.
The report also says shipper demand for hopper cars on CN lines in weeks 30 and 31 are down 16 and 13 per cent 3,650 and 3,150 cars, respectively.
“As we get temperatures closer to 0 C we will be catching up relatively quickly,” Finn said. “It was a difficult week last week, but overall the grain movement this crop year has gone relatively well and our customers and ag industry are recognizing that. We are very focused and we take nothing for granted.”
CN’s performance is much improved from last crop year. The ATC report says during the first 29 weeks of the current crop year, CN rationed a total of 4,134 car orders to ATC shippers, as compared to 16,203 last year.
“Compared to last year we’re coming out of January very well and better equipped,” Finn said, noting that additional staff, new cars and locomotives are coming on line.
CN’s monthly grain plan update says its grain movement through the first half of the crop year totalled 14.39 million tonnes, up four per cent or 555,000 tonnes ahead of the previous record and 9.4 per cent, or 1.53 million tonnes more than the three-year average.
“But there are good days and bad days,” Finn said. It’s just the nature of the business this time of year. “The railways are focused on having the people, the locomotives, the cars and the capacity to move the grain.”
Finn also stressed even though CN will be shipping more Alberta oil it won’t be at the expense of other traffic, including grain.
“It’s important that our customers understand that we won’t move one product to the detriment of another,” he said. “We move all the product we can — grain, potash, forest products and crude.
“We will move all of our customers’ products to market because we understand it’s important for Manitoba and the Canadian economy as a whole.”
Oil typically accounts for three to five per cent of CN’s business, compared to grain at 17 to 20 per cent, Finn said.
“You can see it’s (oil) not a big distraction to operating the railway,” he said. “Grain, intermodal is bigger than that. Forest products is bigger.
“When a customer asks for a rate, and for us to move their product, we have no choice. We have a ‘common carrier’ obligation. We can’t say no. But as a Canadian we all understand Alberta crude has got to get to market and there are not a lot of ways to do so. Rail will not replace pipelines. I’ve said that before. We can be helpful to move the product and we’re just trying to do our job.”