Western farmers want rail headaches fixed for the future

Presentations to Commons agriculture committee all noted the need for a long-lasting fix to this problem

It’s too close to spring and planting time for a special order to the railways to move more grain to achieve much, Prairie farmers have told the Commons agriculture committee.

Rural roads will soon be impassable for grain trucks and farmers will be focused on planting this year’s crop rather than hauling grain to terminals, they said during a protracted hearing by the committee into the collapse of grain movement this winter.

“It’s just a matter of fact we have to get the crop in and we can’t run on roads that aren’t made for trucks to run on,” said Daryl Fransoo, a director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. “So an order-in-council or something to that effect would be no benefit but it might have been or it would have been a month ago.

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“When grain is sitting in a farmer’s bin, of course we aren’t getting paid, we can’t pay our bills, and the domino effect rolls out across all the towns and across the Prairies,” he said. “On top of the immediate financial problems, farmers are attempting to make decisions for the looming crop year. When cash flow was all but stopped for many farmers, the future looks bleak.”

Like other shipper groups, the farm presenters called for an amendment to the government’s transportation modernization bill to authorize the Canadian Transportation Agency to proactively investigate delays and disruptions to freight movements.

Still waiting

The Senate transport committee is still hearing witnesses on the bill and hasn’t reached the stage where amendments to it might be proposed. If it did amend the bill, it would have to be returned to the Commons for approval. Transport Minister Marc Garneau hasn’t responded to calls by a coalition of shipper groups for the CTA to have the expanded powers as was recommended in the 2016 review of the Canada Transportation Act.

Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agriculture Producers, said that so far Manitoba has received 28,000 fewer grain hopper cars than promised.

“Overcoming that would require 5,500 to 6,000 cars a week until August,” he said. “As far as trying to save it, we’ve got time but the railways really have to perform in top notch. If past practices are any indication, I highly doubt it.”

If they don’t, farmers might not have enough storage for the 2018 crop, he said. “That’s where we could have some real trouble.”

“I don’t think you can save this season,” Warren Sekulic, a director with the Alberta Wheat Commission said. He doubted he could even drive a loaded grain truck out of his yard in northern Alberta “without tearing the heck out of it.”

Sekulic recounted how his pea harvest was contracted for delivery in November, and when rail cars didn’t arrive, “I had to bear the cost and resources of bagging my peas and leaving them on the ground in temporary storage, pending the availability of rail cars to make up this shipment. As the snow starts to melt now and the railway has still not fulfilled my delivery, I have to use further resources to move the peas now from the bag to bins so that my product doesn’t get damaged.”

Delivery contracts for his canola keep being pushed back, he said. “This is further complicated by spring conditions in which road bans are instituted making it almost impossible to deliver my grain if delayed trains do arrive. This is not a fictitious backlog; this is reality.”

No shocker

After more than 100 years of railway operations in Canada, tough winters shouldn’t come as a surprise, he said. “We need better planning for that. CN and CP need to be better prepared, not get rid of power, and have more front-line manpower. Obviously their forecasting was poor, so I suggest maybe they spend some money on that.”

Mazier said the grain transportation chaos of 2013-14 “caught many in government and industry off guard. This time around, we became aware of the challenges that railways have been having moving our grain much earlier this year.” He credited the reports of the Ag Transport Coalition for the greater awareness.

The issue now is how to fix the delivery problem “before permanent damage to our country’s reputation as a reliable shipper of grain is done again,” he said. “A good first step is to come up with a plan to get the grain moving.” He asked the committee to keep the pressure on the government and the railways until the backlog cleared.

“In Canada, our growing season is very short,” he said. “Our seeding and harvest windows are narrow and it is difficult to predict how long they will last. To deal with this challenge we invest more in equipment than nearly any other farmer in the world and when the conditions are right we work all day and all night to get the crop off the field and into the bin. I fully expect the railways to make investments necessary to get the job done.

“Canada’s economic well-being is critically tied to rail transportation,” he said. “Do not shy away from your responsibility to ensure that Canada Transportation Act addresses the challenges we face and ensures that Canada’s economy can grow to its full potential.”

Mazier said the problems were amplified by former CP boss Hunter Harrison who “changed the way railways use their capital and their investment, but at the cost of service. The shareholders were very happy about that response, but it did not serve Canada very well.”

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