Recent investments in the grain handling and railway sectors are having a positive impact on Western Canada’s ability to move grain quickly and efficiently.
Earlier this month, Calgary-based Canadian Pacific Railway announced that it has set yet another monthly record for the movement of western Canadian grain and grain products.
In October, the company moved an unprecedented 2.64 million tonnes of grain and processed grain products, breaking CP’s previous monthly record of 2.59 million tonnes set in September, 2017.
Since the beginning of the 2018-19 crop year on Aug. 1, CP has moved about 7.5 million tonnes of western Canadian grain and grain products.
CP says the company’s total movements of grains and will exceed 25 million tonnes in 2018-19.
That number is based on a 2018-19 grain production estimate of 70.8 million tonnes and carry-in volumes estimated at more than 12.6 million tonnes.
Joan Hardy, CP’s vice-president of sales and marketing for grain and fertilizer, said October was an outstanding month for the company’s grain business, despite challenges caused by delayed harvest operations in some areas and an early October snowfall in northern Alberta.
Those factors contributed to relatively long hauling distances in October with a higher-than-normal proportion of Vancouver-bound CP grain trains originating from delivery points in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan.
When asked to explain the factors that contributed to CP’s record-setting October, Hardy cited close co-operation between CP and its major grain shipping partners.
She also said capital investments and infrastructure renewal projects — both in the grain handling sector and in the western Canadian railway network — are resulting in greater efficiencies and higher-throughput capacity.
“A lot of it is (related to) the way we work with our customers,” said Hardy.
“They’ve got a lot of really strong expertise in supply chain management and we work very closely with them. That all comes together to move a lot of Canadian crop.”
In recent years, Canadian grain companies have spent billions of dollars to improve throughput efficiency and ensure that the Canadian grain supply chain can deliver products quickly and efficiently to overseas buyers.
New grain collection facilities with loop track configurations are becoming more common across the West. Most are capable of loading 134-car grain trains in less than a day.
Hardy said CP’s dedicated grain train programs have reduced train cycle times considerably.
CP’s dedicated train program involves grain trains that are 7,000 feet long. Typically, they consist of 112 hopper cars, each capable of carrying 93 tonnes of wheat.
Under that scenario, the train’s total hauling capacity would be approximately 10,400 tonnes.
More recently, CP has introduced a high-efficiency, power-on train model that requires grain shippers to load an 8,500-foot train in less than 16 hours with no disruptions to CP’s main-line traffic.
“We are seeing some very good momentum with the 8,500-foot, high-efficiency trains,” Hardy said.
“These are definitely contributing to the efficiency of our movements and our ability to move more tonnes.”
CP expects to see further efficiency gains as new high-cube hopper cars are brought online.
The company has committed to acquiring 5,900 new generation, high-cube hopper cars over the next four years.
The first of those cars — about 500 in total — are expected to be deployed on the CP network before the end of 2018.
The newer cars will be more than a metre shorter than the existing Government of Canada hoppers and will be capable of hauling an additional nine tonnes of wheat per car.
In cases where an entire high-efficiency 8,500 foot grain train is comprised of new, high-cube hoppers, a single train would consist of 147 cars and be capable of hauling 15,000 tonnes of grain.
That’s a 44 percent volume increase over the current 112-car train model.
Hardy said unpredictable winter weather conditions on the Prairies will continue to be a potential irritant for grain operations, as will rain delays that affect west coast loading activities.
Overall though, CP is well positioned and has a winter-preparedness strategy in place, Hardy said.
In October, slightly less than 10 percent of CP’s total bulk grain movements originated from prairie-based loop-track elevator facilities.