Shipping efficiency key goal

Faster, taller, shorter, longer, fewer and bigger.

Those are the attributes of the future western Canadian grain logistics system, transportation system players told the Grain World conference.

“The role of our primary elevator system has completely changed and has to focus on shifting velocity,” said Karl Gerrand, the president of G3 Canada.

A number of experts at the conference predicted continued efficiency gains in the prairies-to-Vancouver system, from farm to port.

Overall, the system should substantially increase the amount of grain that can be stored, handled, moved and exported in coming years, as crop production similarly grows.

Gerrand said he expects several changes:

  • more on-farm storage
  • less commercial storage
  • fewer but bigger hopper cars
  • larger and faster trains
  • shorter turnaround and loading/unloading times.

“I think there’s a real shift coming from low-efficiency to the higher efficiency facilities,” said Gerrand.

Already, about one-third of Western Canada’s grain elevators are handling two-thirds of grain shipments, with 32 million tonnes of a total 43 million tonnes last year moving through elevators that can handle 100-car trains or larger.

David Przednowek, Canadian National Railways’ director of marketing, said investment has been pouring into the westward-facing grain logistics system. His company has spent about $20 billion in the past 10 years and the other parts of the system have also been aggressive with their expansion plans.

While the dividing line for cost effective shipping between west-bound and east-bound is theoretically along a north-south line between Saskatoon and Swift Current, in reality it is between Brandon and Winnipeg, with incentives drawing grain on most of the Prairies toward Vancouver.

Vancouver is very much “where grain wants to go,” except for certain specific crops, like durum.

Gerrand and Przednowek said trains are carrying more grain these days and will continue to boost carrying capacity.

Hopper cars are getting taller but shorter lengthwise.

The new design allows each car to carry about 20 percent more grain.

With longer trains of 134 to150 cars becoming more common, Przednowek said the efficiency of the “slots” in the system is im-proving. The system can handle only so many trains per day, but if each train carries more grain, the overall capacity can substantially rise.

Gerrand said he doesn’t expect to see grain companies attempt to store more of the prairie crop. They will leave that to farmers.

“Canadian farmers have grown their on-farm storage,” said Gerrand, noting that farmers can now hold about 70 million tonnes while grain facilities only have seven to eight million tonnes capacity.

“There’s no doubt they’re willing storers of grain,” said Gerrand.

Companies like his will focus on receiving grain fast, railing it fast, unloading it fast and getting hopper cars back to the elevator fast.

“We will be cutting the cycle time in half,” said Gerrand, targeting a seven-day turnaround for grain trains from G3’s new facilities.

In 2015, a 20-day turnaround was typical for prairie elevators. It is now 14 days.

Przednowek said the goal of companies like his is to have a free-flowing system that doesn’t bog down.

“You want to avoid pinch points and bottlenecks,” he said.

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