Western Canada’s agricultural supply chain appears to be moving more grain and doing it more quickly and efficiently than ever, based on year-ending figures from the Canadian Grain Commission and the country’s two largest railway companies.
According to the CGC, more than 40 million tonnes of cereals grains, pulses and oilseeds had been exported from Canada in the 2018-19 crop year, as of July 21.
Updated crop-year-ending export numbers from the CGC were scheduled to be published Aug. 8.
This year’s export program included a record 23 million tonnes of grain shipped through Vancouver export terminals — up by at least six percent over 2017-18 — and more than six million tonnes exported through Prince Rupert, an increase of at least 16 percent over the previous year.
Canada’s major railway companies — Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway — have also increased their expected maximum weekly hopper car spot targets for the new crop year.
CP says it will now aim to spot up to 5,700 grain hopper cars per week from early August through late-December, and from April to the end of July, subject to customer demand.
CP’s target during the same period last year was 5,500 cars per week.
During the winter months when the Port of Thunder Bay is closed, CP plans to supply up to 4,250 grain hopper cars each week, up from 4,000 a year earlier.
The expanded car spot targets are highlighted in CP’s annual grain plan, which can be viewed on line at bit.ly/2YTmm8L.
“We continue to make record investments in our network, hire more running trades employees to operate trains, and modernize locomotives to meet the needs of our customers and the North American economy,” said Joan Hardy, CP’s vice-president of sales and marketing for grain and fertilizers.
CN has also adjusted its maximum car spot number to 5,650 per week in non-winter hauling periods — up from 5,500 per week in 2018-19 — and 4,150 cars per week during the winter — up from 4,000 previously.
Canada’s largest railway companies both had record-setting years in terms of total grain movements during the 2018-19 crop year.
CP announced last week that it moved more grain and grain products in 2018-19 than in any previous crop year.
CP’s total shipments in the 12-month period ending July 31, 2019 were 26.8 million tonnes, the company said.
That’s about 2.8 percent more than 2017-18 and 3.9 percent higher than the previous three-year average.
CN also set an all-time record, moving more than 27 million tonnes of grain and grain products, compared to the previous record of roughly 26 million tonnes in 2016-17.
“As we sit here today … we’ve already moved over 27.5 million tonnes of grain and processed grain products out of Western Canada, said CN’s David Przednowek.
“The previous record, two years ago, was 26.3 million tonnes so we’re already 1.2 million tonnes ahead of that.”
CN’s 2018-19 figures include grain and processed grain products moved in hopper cars, box cars and tanker cars, but they do not include grain shipped in intermodal containers, which represents another million tonnes or more.
Przednowek said CN’s record numbers were achieved despite a relatively slow start to the 2018-19 shipping season, caused by harvest delays and lower-than-expected demand for rail cars during the September-October period.
“Almost to the end of October, demand was not meeting the maximum sustainable supply chain capacity threshold … of 5,500 cars per week and that had everything to do with the impact of weather on the supply chain — lack of grain availability and customers self-cancelling (car) orders.”
Trade disruptions that affected westbound canola shipments also had a negative impact on overall tonnage.
Hardy said CP continues to make record investments in its network and is taking steps to support the entire grain supply chain in moving higher volumes.
CP’s 8,500-foot High Efficiency Product (HEP) train model, announced last summer, continues to gain traction with grain shippers.
CP is already serving seven HEP-capable grain elevators in Western Canada and four additional facilities are expected to be operating by next spring.
The company has also added 1,500 new high-capacity hopper cars to its grain fleet, and at year’s end, more than 1,900 new high-capacity hoppers will be in service.
The new cars are part of CP’s $500 million commitment to invest in 5,900 new high-capacity hopper cars, which hold up to 10 percent more grain than the older, less-efficient hopper cars they are replacing.
At CN, Przednowek said recent investments in locomotives, cars, crews and railway infrastructure have enhanced throughput capacity and network resiliency.
CN spent a record $3.5 billion on capital investments in the 2018 fiscal year and will spend another $3.9 billion this year, including nearly $1.1 billion in Canada’s four western provinces.
The company’s 2018 capital budget had a strong emphasis on Western Canada.
More than 65 kilometres of double track was added between Edmonton and Winnipeg and significant railyard expansion projects were initiated in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Melville, Sask.
“It (2018) was a record spend … and within that spend was a very strong emphasis on capacity enhancing projects in Western Canada,” Przednowek said.
“When you start getting into tougher winter conditions … (those projects give you) more resiliency in the network and more work arounds if you have mainline disruptions.”
Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., which oversees the federal grain monitoring program, said the final export figures for the 2018-19 crop year may not be known for weeks.
That’s because ship loading numbers reported to the CGC by grain export terminals are often delayed.
Nonetheless, early indications suggest that 2018-19 will be a record year for grain exports at Vancouver.
Other export gateways at Prince Rupert and Thunder Bay also had excellent years, but it remains to be seen whether they will set records.
Export data is still coming in “but when I look at what we’ve got so far at the Port of Vancouver, it’s probably going to be a million and a half tonnes higher than its best year ever,” Hemmes said.
“Overall, it’s been a very good year. I don’t know at this point whether I’d say it will be a record year (for the all western ports combined) but if it’s not, it’s going to be — at the very least — the second best ever.”