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Producer loading sites needed – Opinion

Goff is a farmer in Hanley, Sask., and director of the Canadian Wheat Board board of directors.

The existence of public loading sites spread across the Prairies gives farmers an additional avenue to ship their grain and provides checks and balances to the grain handling and transportation system. This helps to keep the major players honest and brings an important element of competition to the ongoing consolidation in the grain industry.

It is the broad geographic positioning of sufficient density that makes these public sites useful to farmers as an effective safety valve. Closing public sites will inevitably increase the distance that the majority of farmers will have to haul. This will reduce both opportunity and profitability.

CN is arguing that lack of use makes these public sites unnecessary and an economic drag on the rail system. As a comparison, all hot water heaters in our homes have a safety valve installed to prevent an explosion in case the controls malfunction. These valves are mandated by regulation on every heater installed in this country.

The fact that very few of these valves ever perform their function in no way lessens the critical need for their inclusion. It does not allow the manufacturer to eliminate them as a cost saving measure.

During the last 12 years, producer car use has steadily increased from 3,000 cars to a record 12,467 last year. This is an indication that the number of public sites should be increased, not reduced.

The economic savings to producers who choose to load their own rail cars can approach $2,000 per car. This saving, along with economic activity generated at the town’s siding and the retention of local rail service, are endangered by this proposal.

Farmers need the choice of rail car loading as an option for grain movement. Having the maximum number of public loading sites available helps to ensure reasonable access to this cost saving option.

A farmer’s right to access public producer car sites was enshrined in legislation near the turn of the 20th century after a hard fought battle against the grain companies and railways of the day. This access was legislated to ensure that farmers had the ability to choose between the services offered by the big companies and the savings and convenience afforded by local self-loading.

Today, these issues are as relevant as ever. Farmer access to public producer car sites for loading rail cars was not granted for the railways’ convenience or economic benefit. It was granted for the benefit of grain producers. The legal right to order a rail car is useless if no mechanism is in place to ensure that the car is placed within a practical distance.

Farmers cannot accept the process that allows the abandonment of 30 percent of CN’s listed public loading sites to be left to CN’s sole discretion. CN may have followed all the requirements laid out in the act but the act is flawed in this regard. We must correct this legislative defect and maintain producer choice. A decision as far-reaching as this, which affects so many on such a large scale, must not be left to a single party with self-interested motives.

A transparent system would include a more effective and public notification system. Farmers and all levels of governance would be involved. The onus would be put on the railways to prove why these sites need to be abandoned. The public producer car loading system should be subject to scrutiny by all affected parties and designed to ensure the best placement of sites and use of resources.

All parties concerned realize that if sites are abandoned and infrastructure removed, they will be lost forever to our rail system.

In a world that realizes that rail is the most efficient method of land transport and is struggling to reduce consumption of nonrenewable resources, we have to maximize our use of ecologically sound assets.

These public loading sites were never intended to be a source of extra revenue for the railroads. They were intended to impose checks and balances by allowing farmers the ability to ship their production by an alternative method from a reasonably convenient location.

Commercial discussions do not have anything to do with public producer car sites, which are a regulatory issue. Producers would be waiving their regulatory protection by entering into a commercial arrangement on these sites. This is an unacceptable and unnecessary capitulation to CN’s strategy for eliminating farmers’ choice.

One could imagine a city transit company arguing that stops three blocks apart were too uneconomical, given the extra time taken to stop and start, wear on the equipment, extra fuel used, drivers’ wages, etc.

Reducing the number of stops by spacing them to one kilometre would reduce costs to the transit company, but would also drive use to a point that it could be argued the entire system should be abandoned.

Farmers must ensure that legislation protects the maximum number of sites and maintains the greatest possible access to this important avenue of grain movement. The checks and balances that these public sites provide must not be underestimated. Our experience with the current economic crisis should have taught us the folly of allowing self-regulation by big business.

The solution to this situation resides with our politicians. It is their responsibility to ensure that producers are protected from the abusive use of the railroads’ power. By establishing and enforcing a process that enables farmers and all stakeholders to shape a rail system that serves all Canadians, our elected members will serve their constituents well. Farmers must ensure that their voices are heard and counted.

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