How much has Western Canadian grain transportation changed in 25 years? A lot, and not at all

Some things have never and probably will never change in Western Canadian agriculture.

Number One of those things is farmers’ and grain companies’ constant and chronic complaints of poor and unreliable rail transportation. From 26 years of working at this newspaper, I’m pretty confident stating that grain transportation has been farmers’ biggest problem of the past quarter-century and I cannot imagine that this will ever change. The Prairies are landlocked, behind a wall of mountains that makes access difficult for the best markets, thousands of kilometres from the Atlantic, and hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the main grain processing centres of North America. That will make grain-shipping logistics permanently challenging.

But it will also be a perennial issue because no matter how much the system improves, farmers keep big growing bigger crops. As fast as the logistics system improves its carrying capacity, farmers begin outstripping that capacity by steadily increasing the amount it has to carry.

This reality was on display at last months Fields on Wheels conference, which looked at the revolution in Prairie grain transportation since 1995.

It’s been incredible. Imagine a system that struggled and often failed to be able to handle and deliver a sub-50 million tonne crop, relying upon farmers driving five-ton trucks to dump grain at aging wooden elevators that could only handle 18 grain cars at a time, filling 50-car, multiple elevator  trains that slowly wended their ways to Pacific ports or Thunder Bay, to be slowly unloaded and eventually returned to the Prairies for the next load. That was the system that farmers relied upon in the mid-1990s.

Jump forward to today and you’re seeing trucks picking up 45 tonne loads from farms, quickly dumping them at concrete elevators that can load 130-150 car trains, those trains being rapidly dispatched to port facilities with many times the unload speed and being fired back to the Prairies empty and intact to pick up the next load. It’s a system radically more capable of handling grain.

(To see stories on this, check out Allan Dawson’s great laying-out of the history and today’s situation in this story in the Manitoba Cooperator, and my stories in The Western Producer. To hear Allan and me discuss what we heard and what we wrote about, check out this week’s edition of Between the Rows, the Glacier Farmmedia podcast.)

somehow it doesn’t seem it . . . When I go to farm and agriculture meetings, I hear no fewer complaints about inadequate rail service. Farmers, grain companies and western politicians are still fuming about the failure of Canada’s two national quasi-monopoly railways to guarantee the delivery of farmers’ grain to port in a timely manner. Canada’s greatest liability in serving world markets and extracting price premiums for top quality crops is still seen to be unreliable grain transportation. How can this be so, with such great improvements in the system?

The answer, of course, is that farmers keep growing bigger and bigger crops, due to improved farm and crop management, better varieties, and an agriculture system that has continuously improved its abilities and capacities. As fast as the transportation system upgrades, farmers, grain companies and plant breeders confront them with boosted crop production. If we’re lucky, this will never end. This is a good problem to have.

At one time I had a Malthusian-like view of grain transportation. I thought that it could only gain tiny increments of improvement in its capacities, considering that there are only now and likely ever two main rail lines through the mountains and to Thunder Bay. How much can you improve that? Same with ports: They aren’t making any new land in Vancouver, which is getting more and more congested.

But I’ve been wrong about that, and as much as farmers have boosted the size of the crops they have grown, railways, port and other parts of the transportation system have made amazing strides in boosting the capabilities of their systems. I don’t expect to be still doing this job in another 26 years, but if I’m still fit of mind and paying attention 2047, I expect the system might have undergone an equally impressive revolution. We always have problems today, and we need to take them seriously, but vicariously looking back 25 years with Fields on Wheels reminds me that sometimes we need to stand far back and be amazed at where we’ve come from. It’s been quite a journey.

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