Railways made the most of grain opportunity

Record-setting grain-hauling performance during the pandemic is partly due to slumping shipments of other products during the pandemic, but the railroads were already making record shipments of crop in recent years after boosting the capacity of their systems.  | File photo

CN and CP say recent legislation allowed them to make the improvements that helped accommodate increased volumes

Nobody knew COVID-19 was coming, but Canada’s railways were primed to make the most of their sudden ability to ship grain to port.

Two years of heavy investing into 2020 had set up Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway to be able to haul much more grain than before the 2018 Transportation Modernization Act became law, railroad representatives told the Fields on Wheels conference.

That law, which established better rules for shippers and haulers and clearer regulations around railway operations and earnings, gave both railways the justification to spend billions on improving their systems.

“(The legislation) created the regulatory certainty for CP, which gave us the financial confidence to purchase our shorter, fatter and lighter hopper cars for our grain fleet,” said CP director of grain and fertilizer manager Jon Harman.

The new cars carry about 15 percent more grain per car. However, the gains are much greater when combined with CP’s longer trains, which are possible with the shorter, lighter cars, equalling about a 44 percent gain in the amount of grain hauled per train.

That means instead of a panamax vessel requiring five trainloads to fill it, it can be filled by three to four, Harman said.

CN’s embracing of the new cars and longer trains is having the same effect, said David Przednowek, the company’s director of sales and marketing.

Combined with the growing number of loop tracks that allow trains to be quickly filled at the elevator and dumped at port, as well as recent double tracking of the main line and longer sidings that allow for a better flow of the long trains, the ability of the railroad to get grain to port has greatly increased.

“Those numbers add up very fast,” said Przednowek.

Record-setting grain-hauling performance during the pandemic is partly due to slumping shipments of some other commodities and products as the pandemic squeezes consumer demand around the world.

However, the railroads were already making record shipments of crop in recent years after boosting the capacity of their systems.

Przednowek said the company is able to get more on every grain train with “distributed power,” which sees locomotives separated within the train rather than all at the front, as well as air-pressure boxcars further back in the train, which allows trains, especially in the winter, to keep air brakes working and the train operating.

“Anything we can do to increase air pressure flow through the train allows us to run better and increase capacity during winter,” said Przednowek.

Harman said new detection systems are catching bearing and other problems with cars that can cost dangerous and costly delays if they occur unexpectedly. From about 60 per month, CP has knocked down its car problems to about five per month.

The combination of multiple improvements, from within each train to the tracks to elevators and port facilities, has made almost unbelievable turnarounds possible. Harman said he has seen some seven-day cycles recently.

“I’ve been in the grain industry long enough to remember just when getting 14 or 15 days for the same trip was ground breaking,” said Harman.

While recent improvements have allowed the two systems to carry Canada’s 70-plus million tonne crops, those gains come on top of decades of incremental developments that have seen the western Canadian grain economy utterly transformed since the mid-1990s.

From a 1995 crop of about 47 million tonnes being moved through thousands of wooden elevators by trains often smaller than 50 grain cars to crowded and inefficient port facilities, the grain-handling system can now handle a 77 million tonne crop running through a few hundred concrete elevators, with 134-car trains hitting quick-unload port facilities.

There have been a number of grain transportation crises, as in 1996-97 and 2013-14, often sparking high level political action and widespread farmer concern and outrage, but between crises steady but gradual improvements occurred.

However, even as the grain transportation system increased its hauling capacity, farmers improved their crop management skills, seed companies produced ever-better-yielding varieties, and the entire crop production system maximized production and reduced waste.

It’s been a multi-decade race between crop yields and hauling capacity, but for now, the two are relatively balanced. The situation once the pandemic is over and there are more commodities competing for the same capacity, and if farmers keep pulling off bigger and bigger crops, remains to be seen.

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