Farmers continue to demand rail crossing extension

Producers fear they will be responsible for private crossings if regulations that Ottawa previously enacted are enforced next year

Farmers are stepping up pressure on Transport Canada to grant an extension as a deadline to comply with regulations affecting private rail crossings looms less than a year off.

They also want the federal government to reconsider its decision that railway companies can impose upgrade and maintenance costs for such crossings on farmers.

“It has traditionally been the responsibility of the railways to maintain and upgrade the rail network, including grade crossings as part of Canada’s heritage and settlement of the West,” said a joint statement by Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, and the Alberta Federation of Agriculture.

But railway safety is a shared responsibility between railways, communities and governments, something that is “even more true in the case of railway crossings,” Jonathan Abecassis, senior manager of media relations with Canadian National Railway, said in an email.

“The 2018 Rail Safety Act review recognized that a funding program is required to upgrade crossings in Canada. We are collaborating with all stakeholders to discuss various funding sources as well as the delay required to upgrade crossings in order to comply with the new standards.”

Hundreds of private crossings used by farmers on federally regulated rail lines could be affected by a deadline of Nov. 27, 2021, to comply with federal safety regulations. The crossings provide access to everything from fields to homes.

“From the bills that we have seen so far, farmers could be expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars depending on the work that has to be done,” said AFA president Lynn Jacobson in the joint statement. “That work and extra cost, especially during a pandemic, creates additional uncertainty and pressure with a looming deadline.”

Farmers understand the need to ensure crossings are safe because they have to “cross rail lines on a daily basis to get to their homes or fields,” said APAS president Todd Lewis in the statement.

“Their lives and livelihoods depend on it. But we believe that safe rail crossings should be maintained without affecting a farmer’s access to their land and without costs to farmers.”

Although the federal rules came into force in 2014, farmers did not begin to find out about the regulations or the compliance deadline until this year when railway companies individually notified producers by letter, said KAP president Bill Campbell in an interview.

“It almost seems to be picking them off one at a time, and so some of the landowners feel isolated and targeted.”

However, Abecassis said CN has been “working closely with communities and private crossing owners, including the farming community, to ensure that all public and private crossings are safe.…

“We are also working with municipal associations across Canada and farming associations to discuss funding to prescribe with the deadline of 2021.”

KAP asked for a federal deadline extension in a letter Aug. 25 to transport minister Marc Garneau. It took until October before Campbell received a reply highlighting such things as the fact there is a deadline and safety is paramount, he said.

The three farm leaders made their latest request for an extension on Nov. 27.

“A year seems like a long way away, but the railways have let six years lapse before starting to take action,” said Campbell in the statement.

Transport Canada is still reviewing the deadline, said senior communications adviser Sau Sau Liu in an email Dec. 9. “This review will need to be balanced, accounting for economic and safety considerations.”

A lack of clarity surrounds key issues such as the liability of farmers for accidents or derailments at such crossings, said Campbell in the interview. “There are a lot of unanswered questions that need to be dealt with.”

He also remains unconvinced by federal assurances that landowners won’t be cut off from access to fields or homes if they are unable to pay for upgrades.

Such promises have never been indicated in letters to farmers, he said. Producers are instead being left with the impression that if they don’t pay up, “there’s a potential to remove the crossing,” he said.

Not only could farmers be forced to travel many extra kilometres to get to their land, some producers could be completely cut off from it, said Campbell.

“How do you get to a field and what’s the value of that property if there’s no access point to it? How do you check your cows or how do you get your cows in there? And not every part of this country is flat and level with access (from) 360 degrees.”

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