Farmers push standardized data for grain movement

Farm leaders who met with Canadian National Railway vice-president Sean Finn last week say the entire supply chain should use the same data so all players are working from the same numbers.

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said he and representatives from commodity groups met informally with Finn in Regina to discuss the current grain backlog.

Weather, crop estimates and a lack of rail capacity have all been blamed for the problem. The Ag Transport Coalition now pegs the backlog at 28,000 cars.

Finn said CN’s poor performance earlier was a result of unexpected increases in traffic volume after six quarters of declines.

“We got into 2017 and we realized that we were expecting three percent growth in our business,” he said. “Within four months … colleagues were talking 11 to 20 percent depending on commodities.”

CN is now moving grain better, but that is to be expected when the weather improves, Lewis said.

The company has hired hundreds of staff, leased and bought locomotives and is spending $3.2 billion on capital improvements, but all these take time to put in place. In the meantime, farmers want reassurance that it won’t happen again.

“One thing (discussed) was the idea of a common set of data so we’re all looking at the same numbers,” Lewis said.

For example, the railways and the Ag Transport Coalition report car allocation and performance differently. He said better reporting and transparency in that area alone might help.

“(Finn) seemed to think that would be something to work towards,” Lewis said.

In Winnipeg, Keystone Agricultural Producers president Dan Mazier noted that Canadian Pacific Railway still doesn’t supply all the data it is required to by law to the coalition, so reconciling numbers is difficult.

He and Lewis both said that a backlog of 28,000 cars would take months to clear.

“Two weeks have gone by already since their mandate and solution and CP is actually getting worse,” Mazier noted, referring to the request from Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay for plans to move the backlog.

In an interview after the Regina meeting, Finn said all supply chain players have to take the lessons from this situation and improve.

“The grain coalition has a different way of measuring than what we measure,” he said. “Instead of arguing about the numbers let’s sit down and say, ‘how do we measure this, what’s the best measure to show whether we’re performing or not?’ ”

Under Bill C-49, the railways will have to provide a plan each July for how they intend to move grain. A winter plan will be due in October.

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