Ask any writer and they’ll tell you the hardest thing is writing a story without an antagonist.
Heroes are a dime a dozen, but it’s the villains who are usually more interesting characters, providing the conflict that drives the plot along and captures the interest of the reader.
As our Allan Dawson reports in our May 14 issue, however, Canada’s grain sector may need to start looking for a new enemy when it comes to transportation.
There’s no shortage of historical animosity toward the nation’s railroads, of course. Rail barons have, frequently, run neck and neck with the banker in a race to the bottom in the industry popularity contest.
The writer Robert Chodos summed it up in his 1973 book The CPR: A Century of Corporate Welfare by dissecting the “classic CPR joke.”
“… the one about the western farmer who returns home one afternoon to discover that a hailstorm has destroyed his wheat crop, his farmhouse has been struck by lightning and his wife has run off with the hired man. He raises his eyes heavenward, shakes his fist angrily, and yells ‘God damn the CPR!’”
While that might be good for a chuckle, it’s also illustrative of how the railways came to represent eastern Canadian economic dominance of Western Canada, and thus became the whipping boy for much of the region.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been some reason for these sort of hard feelings. Much of the West’s bulk commodity economy must flow through the railways to reach market. From grain to coal to potash, it is captive to the railways, which are the only economical option.
And in the not-too-distant past, many critics of the railways note that in a cost-cutting frenzy both main carriers cut too close to the bone, leaving them little to no ‘surge capacity’ to deal with spikes in traffic or unexpected issues (or even expected ones like a cold winter).
Emblematic of that is the disastrous 2013-14 grain backlog, which some estimates say cost farmers $6.5 billion in direct costs like demurrage and indirect costs such as lost market opportunities and lower prices for grain.
But few would be able to claim with a straight face that there hasn’t been progress made since then, as the ongoing parade of good news out of the grain handling and transportation sector can attest to. For years now it’s been one new export record after another, with few of the kinds of backlogs the sector has historically been subject to.
Even this year, with a run of almost biblical bad luck, the railways have somehow kept the nation’s grain train on the track. As Mark Hemmes, head of grain monitor Quorum notes in Dawson’s article, “For four or five weeks everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”
Yet despite mudslides, a bitter strike, rail blockades and now a global pandemic, grain continues to make it to port. By the middle of February, close to halfway through the shipping year, Hemmes said Canada was on track for one of the worst years it’s ever had. But in the 10 weeks that have passed since then, the railways have staged what he went on to describe as a “remarkable recovery.”
Partly that’s no doubt due to the disappearance of other freight like container shipping of goods from Asia. But it’s also a reflection of investments both carriers have made in more trained crews, more locomotives and new higher-capacity rail cars.
As Dawson discovered when researching the article, it’s not all unalloyed good news. Too much of that grain moved outside of the most profitable window and the grain sector’s remarkably durable productivity gains continue to outstrip gains in the rail system. That’s led to growing year-end carry-out, which is always a troubling sign.
And one can hardly blame the Western Grain Elevator Association’s attitude to the whole thing, which could be nicely summed up as ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop.’
Wade Sobkowich, the group’s executive director, said that when the railways meet their service requirements “… it’s important to start from the point that, that is our expectation.”
One can sense a certain level of justified cynicism in that remark, and it may well take a few more years of decent and relatively trouble-free service before it begins to wear off.
But even so, one has to wonder just what the railways might have accomplished with even a halfway ‘normal’ year for grain shipping.
Certainly they do seem to be taking grain shipping seriously in a way they never have before. Just where this newly laid track is going to take us is unclear, but considering the starting point, it’s not very hard to imagine it’s going to be a better place.
The relationship between railways and farmers may never fit into the category of ‘bosom buddies.’ But it is good to see that it might be, ever so slowly, progressing to something other than ‘sworn enemies.’