CP Railway’s grain shipping record could be short-lived

Canadian Pacific Railway moved a record 29.5 million tonnes of grain and processed grain products in the 2019-20 crop year, surpassing the company’s previous record for total grain handlings by about 10 percent.

That’s a huge accomplishment, according to Joan Hardy, CP’s vice-president of sales and marketing for grain and fertilizer. But the record might be short-lived.

The railway company, grain handling companies and western Canadian farmers could be dealing with a monster crop this fall — a crop that some industry experts say could exceed a whopping 80 tonnes.

The sheer volume of the 2020-21 harvest, combined with strong export demand for Canadian grain and good railway capacity, has CP anticipating a solid start to the new grain shipping season and steady movements throughout the year.

“Everything that we’re hearing from our customers and from industry experts is that this is going to be a gangbuster of a crop, so we are very excited about the prospects for a huge harvest,” Hardy said in an Aug. 7 interview.

“I don’t think anybody today is saying anything lower than 75 million metric tonnes and I’ve heard some numbers that start with eight,” she added.

“I’m not calling an 80 million tonne crop by any means but … I am hearing some industry experts saying that it could have an eight in front of it, so yes, it’s going to be a big one….

“It’s not done until it’s in the bin, obviously, but unless there’s some unfortunate weather situation between now and harvest, it sounds like it’s going to be a record crop, for sure.”

CP is hoping to carry its momentum for the 2019-20 crop year into the new 2020-21 crop year, which began Aug. 1.

Last year, the Calgary-based railway moved more than 29.5 million tonnes of grain, easily surpassing the company’s previous record of 26.8 million tonnes, set in 2018-19.

It wasn’t just “a little record break, but a huge one,” Hardy said.

Of the 12 months in the 2019-20 crop year, CP set nine new monthly records for total grain volumes shipped.

CP’s record haul was that result of many factors, most notably its investments in new high volume hopper cars and the introduction of the company’s new high efficiency product (HEP) train model.

CP introduced its HEP train model last year. The new HEP trains are 8,500 feet long, compared to the previous 7,000-foot unit train standard.

The extra 1,500 feet represents an automatic 20 percent bump in shipping capacity per train.

In addition, the company is upgrading its fleet of covered grain hoppers and will add 5,900 new high volume hopper cars to its fleet.

The new hoppers will replace older hoppers that are longer but have a smaller per-car shipping capacity.

When deployed in CP’s new 8,500 foot HEP train model, the new high volume hoppers will allow CP to move 44 percent more grain per unit train, compared to a shorter 7,000-foot unit train that contains older, low-volume hoppers.

Shipping customers are rapidly modifying their facilities to accommodate the 8,500 foot HEP trains, she added.

“By the end of this calendar year … more than 30 percent of our high throughput elevators or unit train loaders will be 8,500 HEP (train) capable,” she said.

Hardy said COVID-19 had no negative impact on CP’s ability to move Canadian grain. The company’s grain shipping customers have continued to operate seamlessly through the pandemic.

Hardy said new-crop grain will likely be coming off in some parts of the southern Prairies by mid-August.

“What we’re hearing from our customers is that there’s no problem with demand for the grain so as soon as it starts to come off the fields, it’s going to get moving.

“It’s so weather dependent and so harvest dependent, but yes, I would say by late August or early September, we should start to see things moving. CP is poised and ready to go whenever the grain comes off the field.”

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