Big harvest, big rail delays

Straining to keep up | Delays inevitable as rail companies swamped with orders

A big haul by western Canadian farmers has helped boost crop exports, says the Canadian Grain Commission.

The industry had exported 5.1 million tonnes of wheat and 2.3 million tonnes of canola as of Nov. 24, the commission reported last week.

It’s up from the five-year averages for that time period of 3.9 million tonnes and 1.8 million tonnes.

Both Canadian railways are consistently providing more than 5,000 rail cars each per week, but a massive harvest in Western Canada is testing the system.

The grain commission reports that 105,700 tonnes of wheat and 5,500 tonnes of canola have been shipped in producer cars to terminals from Western Canada as of Nov. 24, up from 64,600 tonnes and 5,300 tonnes in 2012-13.

Canadian Pacific Railway reported in a November service report that it spotted more than 5,400 rail cars one week, with thousands more requests piling up week after week.

“The problem is it’s still not enough,” said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.

“We have such a large crop. Our elevators are full and we need to get some shipping out of the country elevator system in order to bring farmers’ grain in.”

Observers have said that increased oil shipments have compounded the problem, while railway officials contend that additional rail cars will only add to congestion.

“Certainly the smaller processors, the special crop processors and so on, there’s issues getting cars there,” said Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

Shawn Madson, operations manager at Southland Pulse Inc. in Estevan, Sask., said the facility has received all of its orders for rail cars, just not on time. He said the facility has seen regular delays of a week, resulting in inconsistent supply.

Last week, the facility had orders for 24 hopper cars. As of the morning of Dec. 4, it had received six.

“I’m confident that based on their past history this year that we will likely get our cars and they’ll make it up. It’s just going to be late,” he said.

“It might even be next week some time, where they give us too many.… We don’t know when the cars are coming, literally, until they’re sitting here.”

He said Southland may see 24 cars in a busy week and 12 to 15 in an average week.

“We actually do lose business because of the inconsistency and that’s where it hurts,” said Madson.

“We could do more business if it was consistent because you would know (rail car supply), but not knowing is what actually kills sales.”

Hall, who farms near Wynyard, Sask., said he had 120 tonnes of flax to deliver for an October contract. One-third of it moved in November and he wasn’t sure when the rest would go.

“Producers haven’t lost contracts, but they haven’t been able to deliver on certain contracts,” he said.

“The company says we’ll take them at a later date, but then those producers are short on cash for making payments, whether it’s loans or missed buying opportunities.”

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