Issues persist despite record grain movement

Yes, the railways have continued to set grain movement records month by month, and yes it’s a welcome change from last year when a railway strike, derailments and illegal blockades created yet another grain transportation nightmare.

Yes, both major railways continue to make large investments in infrastructure and rolling stock. New hopper cars are shorter while carrying a larger volume of grain. This increases efficiency. The railways deserve some accolades.

While this is all good news, the situation isn’t quite as rosy as it looks.

First, it’s important to note we’re growing and selling more grain than ever before. Not every year generates a bigger crop, but the overall trend is to higher production levels. Just to keep up, the grain transportation system has to set new records.

So far this year that has been accomplished, but it may not be as easy in a post-pandemic world when exports of other commodities compete to a greater extent for capacity.

It must also be noted that up until the end of January this was an abnormally warm winter across all of Western Canada. The bone-chilling temperatures of recent weeks will no doubt take a toll on rail movement as average train speeds as well as train lengths are reduced. Once the system falls behind, it can be difficult to catch up.

While total grain movement is an important measurement, it doesn’t tell the entire story. The Ag Transport Coalition tracks railway performance by measuring how many cars shippers receive as compared to how many they order each week.

By this performance metric, Canadian National Railway in particular has not had stellar numbers. For much of the crop year, only 60 to 70 per cent of the rail cars ordered were spotted at grain shipping facilities for the week ordered.

Grain companies have not complained a lot and neither have farmers. It’s still been better service than in many previous years. However, it’s not exactly the picture portrayed by the news releases touting record movement.

Another interesting metric is the vessel lineup at the West Coast. Surprisingly, the vessel lineup is higher than last year at this time and last year’s numbers caused a great deal of consternation. It’s actually been drier than normal in Vancouver so loading delays caused by rain should have been reduced.

It’s disconcerting that labour issues related to safety continue to prevent the use of measures that make it possible to load ships in the rain. Rainy ports in other nations have figured this out. We need to figure it out as well.

While bulk grain movement has not raised many red flags this year, container movement of grain has struggled mightily. This is particularly important for shipping pulse and special crops where many buyers don’t want and can’t accommodate bulk shipments.

Container lines have made the choice not to make as many empties available. They can make more money by shipping them directly back to China rather than having a grain backhaul. It’s a commercial decision by the container lines that’s difficult to address.

The backlog of hopper cars waiting to be trans-loaded into containers is also causing difficulties in the hopper car supply.

While the grain sector is not fixated on transportation issues the way it was a year ago, it’s misguided to believe all the problems and constraints have been solved.

Continuous monitoring and continuing improvements are vital so that we can efficiently move ever larger volumes of grain to market.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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