SARM delegates give rail service wish list to Ritz

About 1,000 delegates to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities have advice for the federal transport and agriculture ministers as they develop grain transportation legislation.

A 10-point resolution passed on the last day of the annual convention in Regina suggests amendments to Bill C-52 that the delegates believe would help alleviate rail congestion.

The federal government is expected to introduce legislation March 24 to address this winter’s rail backlog. The legislation follows a March 7 order in council requiring the railways to move a certain amount of grain or be fined.

The SARM delegates’ recommendations include:

  • Awarding damages to shippers where warranted
  • Penalizing shippers for cancelled orders
  • Giving the Canadian Transportation Agency investigative powers
  • Establishing poor service penalties to railways outside of the revenue cap
  • Ensuring railways provide a weekly service plan that is updated daily
  • Defining performance standards as a contract
  • Making infrastructure investment mandatory
  • Making sure the government searches for real competition, including separate ownership of rail lines and rolling stock
  • Maintaining the provisions of the revenue cap
  • Appointing an arbitrator to quickly resolve disputes

Another resolution called for mandatory service level agreements with stiffer penalties and movement of a minimum 13,000 grain cars per week.

Duane Filson, reeve of the RM of Wood River, told agriculture minister Gerry Ritz that the resolutions should help guide the legislative solutions.

“I really hope that you listen carefully to what they are and act on them going forward,” he said.

Ritz said resolutions from organizations such as SARM, as well as the input from prairie governments, are helpful when he makes his case to cabinet colleagues.

In response to another delegate, Ritz said grain is registered as an essential service.

He said the railways did an excellent job moving grain directly off the combine last fall.

“And then the wheels fell off, literally,” he said. “They were 20,000 cars behind before the cold weather hit and then it just went worse and worse from that.”

Delegates expressed concern that the rail companies would cherry pick grain from desirable locations under the 5,500 car per week target, but Ritz said the grain monitor will watch to make sure that doesn’t happen.

He also said an estimated 13,000 cars will have to be in service to unload 5,500 cars per week per railway.

Transport minister Lisa Raitt addressed the delegates a day earlier in her first visit to the province.

She said the government isn’t making it possible to fine railways because it wants to collect money.

“We want them to move the grain,” she said. “That’s the point of issuing this directive.”

The existing legislation caps the fines at $100,000 per day. Ritz said other, more costly, penalties could also be imposed.

Asked if farmers, rather than the government, could receive the fine money, both Ritz and Raitt said all options would be considered.

And while neither minister would reveal exactly what the legislation contains, Ritz offered a glimpse of what might it might contain.

“Right now, the contracts that some of the grain companies have signed have only got teeth one way. It’s called buyer’s preference,” he said.

“I would like to see that change. We’re working on some rules that would actually see those contracts with some reciprocity, so if they don’t take in your grain within a period of time they start paying you storage on your farm.”

He said he has no intention of changing the revenue cap, but he would like to see it modernized because it hasn’t been reviewed since 1994-95.

It would likely be part of a CTA review scheduled for next year, he added.

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