Farmers urged to keep watch on rail shipping

Farm leaders last week told federal ministers they are closely watching grain movement this fall to make sure the railways don’t fall behind.

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, and Daryl Fransoo, a Western Canadian Wheat Growers director, both said communication is key as the first shipping season under new transportation legislation begins.

Lewis said producers must tell their farm organizations if they see problems.

“Let’s keep our eye on the ball here,” Lewis said. “We need improved service this winter.”

The comments came after a roundtable meeting with federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay, transportation minister Marc Garneau, railway representatives and other industry players in Saskatoon.

The railways have promised an average 5,500 cars per week through the summer and fall and 4,000 per week during the winter months.

Lewis said he hopes that 4,000 is a minimum number. He said there are already reports from the east side of Saskatchewan that October delivery contracts won’t be met.

“I talked to a producer from Moosomin this week that wasn’t able to haul grain because there were seven cars spotted out of a 100-car train that one of the companies in Moosomin were expecting,” he said. “What’s the plan to catch up? ­­­­When you end up with 93 cars missing one week does that mean we’re going to get 193 cars the next week?”

Fransoo said he is concerned that the railways rely on Statistics Canada yield estimates when making their plans and many already think this year’s crop is bigger than expected.

Combine that with last year’s large carry-out and the number of cars required to move grain might be higher than the railways think, he said.

“We’re in about week seven right now of the hauling year and it’s probably too early to tell but I know there is rumours of rationing already by (Canadian National Railway),” Fransoo said.

An area of particular concern is Tisdale, in Saskatchewan’s northeast, where construction to repair track meant CN didn’t deliver cars for three weeks.

Fransoo said if they are 700 to 800 cars behind now there are already problems in the pipeline.

Lewis added that producers in that area have had to buy grain bags for new crop oats.

“None of the new crop oats is moving and their bins are still plugged with last year’s oats,” he said.

Lewis said stakeholders told the meeting that the northern grainbelt is going to have as much crop as last year or more, and that’s where most of last year’s carryout is concentrated. Buying grain bags or more bins isn’t exactly cash-friendly, he noted.

Fransoo also said he told the meeting that oil has to come off the rails.

“We have to get capacity for the commodities that need to be put on the railways,” he said, adding that oil and frac sand were prioritized during the 2013-14 and 2017-18 backlogs.

He said although he supported the Transportation Modernization Act, formerly Bill C-49, the new legislation doesn’t have the teeth that farmers need.

“We’re going to have to circle the wagons again and do something more to put farms on an even keel with the monopoly railways,” he said.

Lewis said that it is a fresh start under the new regulations but that’s why producers have to immediately report any problems.

“Talking about a disaster in February isn’t going to help us at all,” he said.

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