Interruptions are inevitable, grain transportation needs backup plan

Canada needs a transportation resiliency plan, says a senior executive of a major agricultural commodity group.

This shipping season has highlighted how vulnerable the system is to a myriad of disruptions, said Pulse Canada president Greg Cherewyk.

There has been a “perfect storm” of obstacles in 2019-20.

But there will always be something interrupting the flow of grain and other commodities to market and Canada needs a plan for how to better deal with those bumps in the road when they inevitably occur, he said.

Cherewyk recently attended the 2020 Canadian Crops Convention where there was a lot of talk about the impact of the recent blockades on grain transportation.

He thinks focusing on one issue is doing a disservice to what is a much broader problem.

“I really don’t think it serves us to oversimplify the problems we’ve been facing this shipping season,” he said.

The transportation difficulties began with an unusually late harvest and got worse when CN Rail workers went on strike in November.

An early winter cold snap forced the railways to shorten trains and then in January a rockslide blocked CN’s main line through the Fraser Canyon. A subsequent washout kept that line out of commission until early February.

Around the same time the federal government issued a “go slow order” after a train carrying crude oil derailed near Guernsey, Sask.

And then came the anti-pipeline blockades that disrupted rail traffic on various rail lines and at container terminals.

The latest in the long list of transportation woes is the impact COVID-19 is having on container availability.

“The discussion is not about any one of those incidences,” said Cherewyk.

“It’s about network resiliency. We’re incredibly vulnerable and we’re heavily reliant on this network to move our goods.”

The combined impact of all of the disruptions is that 13,600 rail car orders have been cancelled by the railways since November.

“That is 1.2 million tonnes of demand that was rationed in eight weeks,” said Cherewyk.

Canadian Specials Crops Association president Quinton Stewart said Canada’s dysfunctional supply chain is eroding the competitive advantage Canada has built in overseas markets.

“These disruptions have not only cost our sector tens of millions of dollars, they have badly damaged our international reputation,” he said in a press release.

“It’s going to take months to completely recover and years before we are seen as a reliable supplier by our international customers.”

Cherewyk said there needs to be a national conversation about the issue that includes shippers from the agriculture, forestry, mining and chemicals sectors as well as other parties such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

He wants a “united front” on how to mitigate transportation disruptions through infrastructure investment, legislation and regulation, commercial measures, communication protocols and data gathering and dissemination.

Contact sean.pratt@producer.com

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