New grain system priorities: data collection, infrastructure

The next two big priorities concerning grain movement are data collection and infrastructure, says Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA).

“Any time you have a supply chain you have a bottleneck somewhere,” he said in an interview Aug. 23.

WGEA members welcome the longer trains CN and CP Rail are increasingly running, even though some country elevators don’t have the space to load without breaking them up.

“I have never heard a grain company complain about that,” Sobkowich said. “They are just happy to get the extra capacity and they will work with it however they can in order to accommodate that longer train.”

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Both railways note they have invested billions of dollars in making their networks more efficient. In a recap of the 2016-17 crop year CN Rail notes a lot of grain company investment has, and is, being made too.

For example, construction of nine new country elevators was completed in 2015 and 2016, and a further seven new elevators have been announced with completion dates in the coming 18 months.

Work is also underway to boost West Coast terminal capacity, including the Ray-Mont Logistics grain stuffing facility planned for Prince Rupert, a grain export facility at Fraser Surrey Docks on the Fraser River in Greater Vancouver, and G3’s proposed loop-track facility on Vancouver’s North Shore.

But CN says these investments will create more rail bottlenecks at Vancouver and it wants the federal government to invest money announced for the National Trade Corridor Fund in Vancouver.

“The challenge is that the majority of the traffic moved to the North Shore (where CN handles grain train logistics) is done so at rates that are regulated by the maximum revenue entitlement for grain, or at rates regulated under the CTA (Canadian Transportion Act) interswitching provisions,” a CN official said in an email. “Those regulated rates are simply insufficient to cover the significant investments that are required.”

The current system for collecting data on moving western Canadian grain, including rail performance, is “light years” ahead of other commodities, Sobkowich said. The federal government pays Quorum Corporation to monitor the grain pipeline, which it has been doing since 2000. Ottawa also helps fund the Ag Transport Coalition, which includes WGEA members and many farm groups, track weekly car orders and fulfilment, as well as other related data.

But the federal government is proposing a new system to monitor all rail traffic.

“We don’t want to lose the data systems we have in place,” Sobkowich said.

“It is certainly our objective to keep and further enhance the data that we have in place today through the process that we are expecting to come forward on creating a new data platform for rail service for all industries.”

The WGEA maintains the only way to improve system performance is to objectively measure it.

About the author

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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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