The rail transportation woes that stranded billions of dollars of grain on the Prairies through the winter months should be unlikely to see a repeat if the federal government’s new transportation bill, passed this week, works as planned.
One of the key focuses of Federal Transportation Bill C-49 is to put the onus on Canadian railways to ensure grain shipments are delivered in a timely fashion. The new law will punish railways financially for failing to deliver promised rail cars for moving grain, and will require railways to present by Oct. 1 a winter contingency plan for ensuring grain shipments are moved in the event of bad weather.
The difficult winter weather was one of the reasons railway officials gave for their failure to get Prairie grain moved this past winter. But that won’t cut it as an excuse under the new bill.
According to a National Post story in early April, grain elevators across Canada were still 90 per cent full at that time, and it will take months to clear the backlog. The story also quoted a grain-handling official as estimating that there was still some $500-million worth of grain waiting to get to market.
In March, Canadian National Railway issued an apology and the company’s CEO resigned. CN has mobilized more locomotives and engineers, and on Wednesday, CN Rail announced plans to purchase hundreds of new grain hopper cars to help get grain on the move.
The efforts, while welcomed, are coming late. Because farmers aren’t paid until their product arrives at market, it means many grain producers have endured long months without any cash flow. It also put farmers in the precarious position of having to take on extra debt as the new planting season arrived.
The fiasco is the latest hit to Canada’s reputation on the world grain market. Grain Growers of Canada president Jeff Nielsen said in February that it sends a message to the world “that we’re not a reliable shipper any more.”
That, in turn, affects Canadian farmers’ ability to obtain a good price for their grain on the world market.
CN Rail and Canadian Pacific Railway said another problem was a larger-than-expected grain crop, and earlier this month, CP Rail’s CEO also pointed the finger at the larger grain shipment system, including problems at grain elevators and ports which created “bookends” that are out of the railways’ control.
Wherever the blame lies, such problems with getting Canadian grain to market can’t continue. Canadian railways will certainly have more motivation to ensure they do everything they can to move the grain in a timely manner.
The new transportation bill was welcomed by the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. AFA president Lynn Jacobson said in a statement Wednesday: “Reliable and efficient grain transportation is of critical importance to our operations, and the movement on this bill prior to the new crop year will allow farmers to focus on the task at hand, planting and harvesting another crop, rather than worry about the uncertainty of further rail delays.”
Let’s hope such delays are a thing of the past.