Grain handling system sees major overhaul

Every element of the system has radically evolved since the mid-1990s, from trucks to elevators to trains to ports

In almost every way, the Canadian grain handling and exporting system is a quantum leap forward from where it was a quarter of a century ago.

“There’s been more change in the last 25 years than, I think, the previous 50,” said Mark Hemmes, the president of the federally appointed grain handling monitor Quorum Corp.

“A diversified product mix is making for more efficiencies and greater volume. It’s a new approach to marketing grain than what we’ve seen in the last 50 to 75 years.”

He said 2020 was a great year for Canada’s export grain industry, with pandemic-caused slumps in other commodity exports leaving railways and ports free to focus on shipping western Canadian crops.

That revealed the depth of the investments made since the mid-1990s by grain companies, railways and ports, something required to handle today’s much larger crops.

In 1995, Canada produced about 47 million tonnes of crops, but in 2020 it was facing production of about 77 million tonnes, Hemmes told the Fields on Wheels conference.

The grain handling system once had to market overall stocks of 56.5 million tonnes in a crop year. This year it is making plans for about 80 million tonnes.

“That puts an increased pressure on how the whole grain supply chain works,” said Hemmes.

However, every element of the system has radically evolved since the mid-1990s. Grain trucks with five-tonne loads have been replaced with super-B trains with 43 to 46 tonnes. Elevators can load more than 100 cars, creating trains of up to 134 cars that get grain to port days faster than experienced by trains of only 50 cars.

Bigger grain rail cars can hold more tonnes per unit, boosted recently from 84 tonnes to 94, and they are unloaded much faster at port. Where 700 tonnes of unload per hour were common in the 1990s, now about 2,300 is standard. G3’s new Vancouver terminal can hit a maximum of 6,000.

Bigger ships are sailing off the West Coast, replacing the fleets of smaller ships that hauled grain in the 1990s from Vancouver and Thunder Bay.

The eastern route, too, has improved, after years of decline, rust and stagnation. Increased demand from Europe for durum and canola has led to Thunder Bay’s revival.

“That has really come back in the last three years as more and more grain is being shipped to the European countries,” said Hemmes.

Churchill has also been revived, with a more solid business situation for the rail line and port.

Conferences like Fields on Wheels focus on challenges to the Canadian grain handling situation, but Hemmes’ presentation was a chance to stand back and look at the revolutionary changes that have transformed the industry over the past quarter-century.

Key to that success is the way that every element from the farm to the ports has improved, advanced and invested to boost capacity.

“I think it has allowed for growth we could not have imagined 25 years ago,” said Hemmes.

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