Amid COVID-19, grain shipments improve

Bulk grain shipments increased last week as railways continued to deliver goods during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data from the Grain Monitoring Program shows last week there were 7,094 cars unloaded at ports, an 11 percent increase from the 6,331 unloads that were completed two weeks before.

“It’s a heck of a lot better than it was two weeks ago,” said Mark Hemmes, a grain transportation analyst with Edmonton-based Quorum Corp., which compiles the reports.

The improvement in grain movement follows rail blockades that largely put railway traffic at a standstill, causing vessels to build up at Canadian ports.

Railways and grain companies continue to recover from the blockades. It appears the pandemic has given the industry a reprieve, given shipments of other industry goods have dwindled.

Wade Sobkowich, executive director with the Western Grain Elevators Association, said he hasn’t heard concerns from members. The past week has been strong, he said.

He said the slowdown in other industries isn’t positive news, but it has allowed grain to get a larger slice of the pie.

“We can take as much capacity as we can get,” he said.

Sean Finn, executive vice-president with Canadian National Railway, said the company continues to catch up.

He said CN is making sure the railway remains fluid to meet the current demand.

Data from the monitoring program shows elevator capacity remains tight, operating at 90 percent. Two weeks prior, capacity was 91 percent.

At the same time, grain deliveries increased. Last week, 994,200 tonnes were delivered, a nine percent increase from 913,800 tonnes two weeks ago.

As well, vessel line-ups decreased in Vancouver. There were 36 lined up last week. Two weeks ago, there were 40.

Hemmes said vessel concerns remain at Prince Rupert. There were nine last week, which is considered high. Two weeks ago, there were 11.

Hemmes said it’s concerning because the volume of traffic hasn’t been high enough to fill the vessels. He said eight vessels would need 390,000 tonnes. So far this year,

Prince Rupert has been receiving only 95,000 tonnes per week over the last 10 weeks, he said.

“It would take three weeks to fill vessels on that average, assuming that nothing more is coming,” he said.

Hemmes said Prince Rupert needs 128,000 tonnes per week for movement to return to normal.

With the pandemic, companies have begun to operate differently.

Finn said CN encourages employees to work at home if they can.

He said two American employees have COVID-19, one being a truck driver and the other a conductor. They are self-isolating, he said.

“We are an essential service,” he said. “We need to make sure we serve the economy, as well as take concrete measures to ensure our workforce remains healthy.”

At elevators, truck drivers have been asked to remain in their vehicles during unloading. Access to administrative offices has also been limited in some cases.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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