Stop pointing fingers and get on with fixing grain handling issues

Growing up, my mother used to tell me, “pointing fingers never helped anyone.” The blame game, she’d say, only makes people angry. 


As mothers usually are, she was right. 


In the past eight months, farm groups, shippers, railways and governments have taken turns pointing fingers at each other over the transportation mess in Western Canada. 


Farmers and farm groups are furious, and rightly so. A record bumper crop of 76 million tonnes is supposed to be a cause for celebration. A good harvest is meant to coincide with great cheer, a big meal and a beer. 


Instead, last year’s harvest has become a major headache. Deliveries can’t be made, cash flow is tight and grain continues to sit in bins on farms across the Prairies. 


Shippers are quick to blame the railways. The railways don’t spot cars on time, the shippers argue. The railways have cut capacity, they say. Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway aren’t interested in moving grain, they lament. 


All the railways care about is their bottom line, they shout.


As Perry Pellerin of the Inland Terminal Association of Canada put it during his testimony in front of the Senate agriculture and forestry committee, challenging the railways is like “taking on the school bully.” 


One’s lucky, he said, if they even pick up the phone. 


As for the railways, they’re sick and tired of being everyone’s scapegoat. Their list of excuses is equally long. It was a cold winter. The trains had to be shortened for safety reasons. The grain companies made promises to customers they knew the railways wouldn’t be able to keep. The government was looking for someone to blame. The ports aren’t unloading cars fast enough. The list goes on.


The grain backlog is a mess and a complicated one at that.


At the end of the day, the same groups who caused this nightmare are going to have to get us out of it. 


Eventually, everyone is going to have to check their anger at the door. 


Based on the recent Senate testimonies, where each party spent half their time blaming the other party, it’s safe to say industry isn’t there yet.


No one said finding a solution was going to be easy. Tensions across the supply chain are at an all time high. Frustration is mounting. People are fuming.


Still, if the industry isn’t careful, prairie farmers could find themselves in the exact same spot come September, thanks to massive carryover numbers estimated at 22 to 26 million tonnes.


Everything is on the line.


International customers are nervous, our market share is at risk, livelihoods are at stake and Canada’s reputation as a reliable supplier is near shreds. 


It’s time for industry to roll up its sleeves and get to work. Otherwise, this backlog could cause permanent damage to an industry expected to carry a large chunk of the future Canadian economy. 


Anger isn’t helping anyone. 


Canada is home to two railways and a smattering of grain companies. Competition is limited and power is often found in the hands of the few. 


Grain needs to get to all markets. The railways must apologize to their customers. Egos need to be checked, arrogance abandoned and relationship 101 brought to the forefront. 


The business world might say otherwise, but shareholders aren’t the only ones that matter. Customers do, too. 


Shippers, meanwhile, while wary of the railroads, need to understand the trains are the only game in town. If they want their product moved, they need to talk to the railroads.


The past is the past. It’s time to focus on the future. Pointing fingers and digging up dirt only serves to stir the pot. 


And, as my mother would say, anger doesn’t solve problems. People do.


Frank, honest conversation (backed with concrete, accurate data) with both government and the railways is the only path to a long-term solution.


Skepticism, while healthy in small doses, cannot and should not be used as a defensive shield.


As for the government, it needs to start listening. 


Passing legislation for the sake of passing legislation is not going to help anyone. Accept amendments, fix the loopholes, book a boardroom, buy the doughnuts and start brewing the coffee.


It’s time for folks to start talking.


Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics, www.ipolitics.ca.

  • Dianne McCollum

    My mother used to say FIX the problem and not the blame.
    Telling farmers the RR’s are their ONLY option is not helpful.
    Trucking could be an alternative for a number of farms close to the various ports, Vancouver,Fort William, Thunderbay & the US border. That is a better alternative to sitting watching your grain devalue while you wait for hoppers cars that don’t show up.
    The $550 million cap is still in place & at the current rate of shipping mandated by the feds the RR’s will run into the limit by Aug/Sept 2014. or even sooner. What then? Will the farmers fall for the feds ‘if only you would drop the cap & pay more’ your grain would be hauled by the RR’s. CP downsized their operations Aug 1 2013 after reaching the cap, shedding 11,000 hopper cars, 400 locomotives & 4500 employees and then passed the $907 million in savings in a share buyback to shareholders in early 2014. Much more oil will be transported by rail….that is a given. RR CEO Harrison has promised shareholders at the annual meeting improved revenues of up to 30%. Figure out where he is going to get them.