Railway service plans ‘underwhelming’

Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway posted plans last week in response to a request from Ottawa

Canada’s grain growers say the plans released last week by Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways to improve service could be too little, too late.

Both railways had until March 15 to submit plans to Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay after farmers raised the alarm in Ottawa that poor rail service was creating a backlog.

Both railways pledged more staff and more trains through the next few months.

Grain Growers of Canada President Jeff Nielsen said it might be too late for significant improvement this year.

“The grain value chain has been living with plummeting performance for months and any improvements in rail service will unfortunately come at a time when spring road bans and planting will limit the amount of grain farmers can move,” he said.

Saskatchewan extended winter weights in northern and central parts of the grain belt but weight restrictions are now in effect in the south.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he didn’t find much in the railways’ plans.

“I would say that it’s somewhat underwhelming,” he said during a speech to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities annual convention.

The plans strike an apologetic tone, he said, and they should, but the railways have a lot to answer for in terms of performance. Moe described the situation as mind-boggling.

“We need a long-term solution to this problem that we’ve experienced twice in the last four years,” Moe said. “We cannot be reliving this this often. It’s too damaging to our economy.”

Grain did move slightly better again last week. The Ag Transport Coalition reported CN and CP supplied 53 percent of cars ordered in grain week 32, up from 45 percent the week before.

However, it still considers performance to be poor.

CN has taken the brunt of the complaints. Its plan to improve service will restrict flow between Edmonton and Winnipeg by controlling movement of empty cars into Western Canada, better managing frack-sand orders, and returning empty propane cars in a more controlled way.

The company repeated earlier promises to deploy qualified staff to operate trains and offer incentives to postpone vacations or delay retirements to keep enough personnel.

CN takes delivery of 60 of an order of 200 new locomotives later this year and plans to expand track and yard capacity this summer.

CP is also adding 100 locomotives and 700 employees through the summer and planning capital investments.

In a statement, Garneau said he would continue to closely monitor the situation.

“While the current issues must be resolved as quickly as possible, we also need look beyond them to ensure the problems that have developed this winter are not repeated,” he said. “That is among the reasons we introduced Bill C-49.”

Nielsen said C-49, which is still in the Senate, must be amended and passed as soon as possible.

“CN and CP have demonstrated time and again that they will not act on their own and that is why shippers need tools to hold them to account,” he said.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture and other organizations also want amendments.

“CFA dismisses the argument that amendments would delay swift passage of the bill,” said President Ron Bonnett.

MacAulay met with the Crop Logistics Working Group March 19 to discuss the issue and also referenced C-49.

“We urge all Parliamentarians to pass this critical piece of legislation as quickly as possible because Canada needs a world-class transportation system not only for this year or next year, but for many years to come,” he said.

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