Short lines want more cars

Short-line railway operators on the Prairies hope the Canada Transportation Act review will address key issues affecting western Canadian grain transportation, most notably the thorny question of car supply.

“We are sure hoping that in the review there is consideration for the short lines,” said Perry Pellerin, president of the Saskatchewan Shortline Railway Association.

“In the past, we’ve struggled with car supply issues, so I think we need to make sure we have access to that car supply going forward. What form that takes, I’m not sure, but we’ll see what the CTA (review panel) has to say.”

The association represents close to 20 short-line railway operators on the Prairies, most of which are located in Saskatchewan.

Most short-line companies operate on secondary or branch lines that were bought from Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway.

However, the short lines still depend on CN and CP to supply empty rail cars and transport loaded ones on main line routes.

Pellerin said service to short-line operators has improved dramatically over the past few months, partly because of the decreased demand for rail service from other sectors.

However, association members are wondering if their service will suffer when demand from other shipper groups begins to rebound, such as crude oil and minerals.

Pellerin said a regulatory framework that accommodates the timely movement of grain in producer cars is an important issue for his members, but it’s not the only issue that needs to be addressed.

“I think in the past we’ve kind of been (viewed as) a producer car type operation, but that’s not always necessarily the case,” he said. “Some short lines are far more than that … so I’m hoping there’s consideration … and maybe some opportunity for us to do a little bit better than we’ve done in the past.”

The implementation of new safety management systems is another key issue facing short lines.

Transport Canada response to the fatal train collision at Lac Megantic, Que., by seeking to ensure that all rail companies have updated safety policies that promote a safe workplace. 

Anticipated changes to federal rail regulations will place more onus on short lines to improve safety systems, accountability and record keeping.

Failure to meet tighter federal regulations could result in federal penalties.

“I’m hoping that’s not going to hamper our ability to service customers in the future,” Pellerin said.

“That’s probably our biggest concern going forward.… There’s been a lot of changes lately on the regulatory side that affect short lines and (those changes) could really affect the bottom line.”

Transport Canada officials were scheduled to visit all short line operators this year to ensure that proper safety systems were in place. Following that, railways would be required to designate an accountable executive in charge of rail safety, who would conduct risk assessment and notify the federal transportation minister of significant operational changes.

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