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Opinion: Short lines get short shrift

Railway tracks

Excerpts of testimony by Lee Jebb, vice-president of Cando Rail Services in Brandon to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, June 15.

My message is that immediate, relative and absolute significant gains in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the transport of goods and materials in Canada, including those produced in the agriculture and forestry sectors, can be made by shifting a portion of traffic to more greenhouse gas efficient transportation modes. To put it in perspective, rail is approximately five times as fuel efficient as trucks; water transit more so again.

I’ll start with what I call an iceberg event facing the transportation sector and, by implication, the greenhouse gas reduction efforts of the government. To set the framework, understand that approximately 15 per cent to 20 per cent of originating rail traffic in Canada originates on short line railways.

While I don’t have the support of statistical evidence, I suggest based on my knowledge of the sector that both agriculture and forestry are particularly intensive as short line customers. Many short line railways have a problem. Competing with government-sponsored roads and highways, short lines do not have the revenue-generating capacity to support the business case for capital infrastructure, investment and renewal. The implication is, at some point, as their capital infrastructure wears out, some short lines will be in a crisis, possibly ceasing operations. Their closure will possibly threaten the viability of industry located on their lines and would most certainly shift a large amount of traffic to trucking, further deteriorating and congesting public highway infrastructure and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

While it could be said I have a self-interest bias, I recommend the Canadian government adopt short line sustainability as both an economic and environmental imperative. Perhaps the Senate could use its resources to study the issue.

On a related note, I’ll start to wrap up my comments with an opportunity to achieve system efficiencies in the rail sector benefiting shippers, short lines and Class 1 railways and, again, by implication, the greenhouse gas reduction goals of the federal government. Many short lines and some low-density Class 1 subdivisions are comprised of older, lighter track and bridge infrastructure that restricts the safe movement of traffic to a 263,000- or 286,000-pound loading, much less than the industry standard 286,000-pound loading. This means the traffic originating on a line with this restriction must pass through the whole system at the lower load limit. The implication is longer trains, more congested yards and decreased overall efficiency to move a tonne of product to destination. It hurts customers on short lines with higher associated transportation costs, and it hampers the efficiency of the entire transportation system because of the limitations of the first 10, 20 or 30 miles, and forces a 1,500-, 2,000-mile move at less than optimal capacity.

It’s a complicated system with many factors at play. For example, if this group is on an agriculture focus, 263,000 for grain cars could be an issue as well. But there’s an opportunity here to address sustainability challenges on short lines, while at the same time improving overall system capacity and efficiency. I think there’s a win-win here.

To close, after many years sharing our message in Ottawa and provincial capitals, we found that in both transportation and infrastructure policy, despite a strong case, short line railway infrastructure sustainability tends to often be an afterthought beyond recent prescriptive safety-related initiatives. Perhaps, with your interest and assistance, we can start to address this important issue.

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