Seldom has so much attention been focused on grain transportation. Never has a government been so prescriptive in de-anding the railways pull up their socks within a relatively short time.
However, the real test will come in the legislation promised when the House of Commons returns from its two-week recess. Properly structured, that legislation, along with associated regulatory provisions, will hopefully lay the groundwork for improved railway performance in the medium and long term.
In the past, powerful railway lobbying has turned well-intentioned legislation into largely useless provisions that fail to address the needs of shippers.
No one is swallowing the railway excuses. Canadian Pacific Railway’s Hunter Harrison issued an open letter the day before the federal government’s order in council claiming that adding more cars to the system when it’s congested is exactly the wrong thing to do.
“It is like adding more cars to a highway at rush hour: everything moves that much slower,” wrote Harrison.
The analogy doesn’t hold because the system isn’t congested. Port terminals would love to have more cars to unload. The grain just isn’t getting there. The railways simply haven’t dedicated enough locomotives, rail cars and people.
Yes, they’ve been hampered by a cold winter. If they need to reduce train lengths in the cold, that just means they need more locomotives and more qualified employees.
The railways aren’t being required to do anything extraordinary. They each have four weeks to ramp up to rail car unloads of 5,500 per week, which they themselves have said is doable. Even then, a glut of grain will remain on the farm when the next crop needs to be harvested and stored.
Spring will bring its own challenges. The railways will be ramping up their activity just as road ban season makes it difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, for grain to move off the farm and into terminals. More than ever, producers will need to find ways to haul grain while in the midst of seeding.
It should also be noted that the required movement may have unintended consequences because the minimum volumes are not corridor specific.
Typically, there is a longer car cycle time on shipments sent south to or through the United States. Worried only about their total movement, the railways will have little incentive to service southern routes.
As well, there has been little or no winter rail movement around Thunder Bay to ports on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The railways have concentrated on movement to the West Coast at the expense of eastern and southern corridors and it appears that will continue.
Many in the grain industry say the railways have been cherry picking the easy movements from Alberta locations to Vancouver and Prince Rupert in an effort to show better numbers.
These are all issues the pending legislation should address. Setting movement requirements is a great start, but it may be necessary to set minimum requirements for each transportation corridor.
It will also be important to have timely and accurate information on each cog of the transportation system so that regulators know exactly what’s happening.
The federal government has a historical opportunity to make a real difference in grain transportation efficiency. Let’s not waste this crisis.
Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.