Rail service gets Ottawa’s ear

Parliament to hear complaints | Car shortages, unsatisfactory service cause food supply issues

As Parliament opens a new session next week, the government can expect political pressure over inadequate rail service that has left many prairie farmers unable to deliver their crop.

Grain Growers of Canada wrote a letter to the minister last week urging the Conservative government to “seriously assess the evolving rail capacity issues for Canadian farmers and provide recommendations for alleviating (our) concerns.”

The concerns included significant farmer income loss, increased costs and an impact on food manufacturers unable to obtain the grain feed stocks they need.

“Rail service is beginning to have an effect on the national food supply, too, as millers, food manufacturers and maltsters are receiving unsatisfactory service and real shortages moving grain to plants and then to market.”

Meanwhile, New Democratic Party opposition agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said Jan. 20 his party will be pressing for parliamentary hearings on the issue as well as trying to hold government feet to the fire in question period.

“We certainly will be raising this, and the calls we are getting indicate this is a huge issue for farmers,” he said. “I think the government has to be prepared to take some responsibility for this. (It’s) a major part of the economy and many farmers are missing out on taking advantage of a great crop because they can’t move it. That’s money out of their pocket.”

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said politics are not the answer.

“The short answer is if the (parliamentary committee) wants to look at it, they can,” he told a Jan. 20 teleconference with reporters.

“But at the end of the day, we are looking for pragmatic, practical solutions and not political interference.”

He insisted that the issue of stored crop, frustrating service and lost sales after last year’s record crop does not lend itself to simple or quick fixes.

It will take a “holistic” approach working with the railways, he added.

He did not talk about it, but the federal government and some grain groups will announce this week an Ottawa-supported research project on how to measure railway performance.

Ritz said some producer groups have suggested that the government revise or drop legislation that limits rail revenues from grain movement.

A higher limit or no limit would increase railway revenues, which could then be reinvested.

It is an issue to be discussed with Transport Canada, he said.

“It is one of the options on the table, but at the end of the day there is a terrific amount of discussion to be done,” said Ritz.

“This is one solution some farm groups have been musing about that we should look at, but I’m not about to support giving the railways freedom to charge whatever the market will bear.”

Allen said opposition MPs would demand answers if the government ever raised that proposal.

“This would just be another cost on farmers, and what are the guarantees the money would be invested back into the system by the railways?” he said.

Grain Growers president and southern Alberta grain grower Gary Stanford said in an interview lifting the revenue cap is not a solution his group has advocated.

“There is no short-term fix and there are many parts to this, including increased use of available cars for oil movement at the expense of grain movement, but this will not be fixed in the near term,” he said.

“We just want the government to realize how big this problem is.”

In a letter to Ritz and transport minister Lisa Raitt, Stanford said it is a problem for the future.

“Farmers across Canada are anxious to learn if the railways are formulating plans to accommodate the immediate needs with action and if they are working on a long-term future plan to accommodate larger volumes for grains and oilseeds for next year and going forward.”

The GGC said rail carriers should expect larger volumes as a regular occurrence in the future as improved varieties are introduced.

“Last year’s harvest is the new normal.”

CORRECTION – Jan. 24, 2014 – 1400 CST – Due to an editing error, the original version of this story stated, “GGC president Gary Stanford said his group is arguing for lifting the revenue cap.” The correct statement from Stanford should read, “Grain Growers president and southern Alberta grain grower Gary Stanford said in an interview lifting the revenue cap is not a solution his group has advocated.”

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