Raitt ignoring rail grain debacle, critics charge

CFA speakers say Lisa Raitt needs to hold 
the railways accountable for poor service

Rail cars.

Farm leaders and opposition politicians are blasting Transport Minister Lisa Raitt for failing to intervene in a dispute over railway grain shipments that could cost Prairie farmers $2 billion in lost sales and lower prices.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture that “we need the transport minister to tell the railways to get the job done. We’ve got ships waiting for the grain and the government is not stepping up to the plate.” He said Ottawa’s handling of this issue during the last few months “has been an absurdity of ridiculous proportions. The minister of transport needs to get her act together.”

Although farm groups have been complaining since early December about the inadequate performance of the railways, Raitt has said virtually nothing on the issue even though her department has regulatory authority over the carriers.

The issue has been dumped on Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz who has no power to compel the railways to move more grain. He has been left to attempt to convince the carriers, grain companies and farm groups to work co-operatively on the issue.

“The time for talk is over,” NDP farm spokesman Malcolm Allen told CFA delegates. “It’s time to bring out the big stick. If we have to hit the railroads in the back of the head, then do it.”

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, berated the “non-involvement of the transport minister in this issue. Transport Canada has always been considered as railway friendly and its threat to regulate the carriers is seen by them as an empty threat. However, the situation in Western Canada is so serious that the government doesn’t have a choice anymore.” As much as he disliked government regulation, “in this case regulation is required,” Jacobson said. “It’s the only way to go.”

From the Alberta Farmer Express website: Producers urged to lobby feds over railway delays

Garnet Etsel of the B.C. Federation of Agriculture noted that when she was labour minister, Raitt blocked Air Canada employees from striking because it was a threat to the Canadian economy. Yet when the railways’ failure to move grain threatens livestock and poultry feeders across the country, “she’s silent.” Government and the industry need “to find a solution today. The stick can’t come out fast enough.”

Humphrey Banack, first vice-president of CFA, said he recently attended a presentation by CP chairman Hunter Harrison in Calgary who won a business award for turning around CP’s financial performance. The CP boss talked about the need to improve the return to shareholders, but said nothing about service to customers. Banack said he and mining and forestry industry officials at the event “talked about what business can carry on when concern for the customer isn’t the No. 1 priority.”

Trudeau says the federal government has to make sure the country’s resources can get to market. “In this case we have ships waiting for weeks for grain to arrive by rail. Or they go to U.S. ports to pick up shipments. The government hasn’t stepped up on this. We need mandatory enforceable performance standards.”

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