The closure of 17 CP producer car loading sites across Western Canada is “one more nail in the coffin” for alternatives in grain marketing for farmers, says the chair of an Alberta short line railway.
“Being a producer car loader most of my life and being involved with the railway — which started out as an opportunity to access producer cars — I find it very discouraging when CP decides to decommission all of these sites,” said Ken Eshpeter, chairman of the Battle River Railway.
“As difficult as it is to get a producer car and market it, it’s still something that’s there. If we lose that, we are totally at the mercy of big grain, and we have no other options.”
Last month, CP quietly announced it would be closing 17 producer car loading sites across the Prairies, including six in Alberta at Sedgwick, Daysland, Nobleford, Red Deer, Wetaskiwin, and Ponoka. CP cited disuse and safety concerns as the reasons for the closures.
“CP is focused on operating the safest railway possible and continuously reviews the need for switches in the main track as they are a point of risk,” Martin Cej, CP’s assistant vice-president of public affairs and communications, said in an email.
“As a result, CP will be removing a small number of select producer car locations in Western Canada, most of which have not been used in years, some of which are inaccessible as CP does not own the adjacent land, or where the infrastructure itself is not owned by CP.”
Decommissioning these sites means the track switches will be removed, “which can increase the risk of an incident,” he said.
“Switches have movable components and require mechanical fastenings to join the components to the main track structure,” he said. “All of these additional components are a source of risk should they fail as a train is passing over them.”
There are grain terminals within 20 kilometres of the closed locations, Cej added.
But Eshpeter calls the safety concerns “bogus.”
“I don’t buy that at all,” he said. “At our short line, we have to deal with track safety issues all the time. You won’t find very many derails occurring at switches on sidings.”
And while the sites have been “largely unused” — CP said that less than 0.33 per cent of all grain carloads in Western Canada last year were producer cars — that doesn’t mean they are unneeded, Eshpeter added.
“My fire insurance policy on my house has been largely unused, but I still have it.”
Producer cars have historically been a way for farmers to “counteract” poor service or poor pricing when marketing their grain, and the need for that isn’t going away, he said.
“Just because we see big facilities out there doesn’t mean those people have changed their hearts, whereby they work mostly for farmers instead of themselves. That’s not the case — they work for themselves,” said Eshpeter.
“Even though a lot of folk at the current time might not be using them, that doesn’t mean that the need for these opportunities to load producer cars at these sites in the future isn’t real.”
The federal government committed to providing producers the opportunity to load producer cars when the Canadian Wheat Board was dismantled in 2012. That can’t happen if these sidings continue to close, he said.
“If CP and CN are given carte blanche opportunity to decommission sites where producer cars have historically been loaded and there’s no push-back, how am I going to load a producer car?” asked Eshpeter.
“The federal government’s words are really hollow about farmers being able to access producer cars if I cannot practically do it.”
As producers prepare for changes to grain transport in Canada — the Transportation Modernization Act is expected to receive royal assent this fall — this loss of producer car loading sites is a step backward for producers who want marketing and transport options for their grain, said Eshpeter.
“If one is of the mindset that farmers have no right to ask for alternative or expanded services, then one would easily dismiss farmers’ lamentations about the loss of sidings,” he said.
“But if one believes that farmers should have a right to develop a realistic alternative to stay viable in their business, then one is wholeheartedly supportive of anything that provides an alternative.”
Otherwise, producer cars could go the way of the short line railways, he added.
“As farmers, we sat around and watched these short lines disappear, and then later on we said, ‘Oh dear me, it’s too bad we let that little short line disappear.’”
Some farm organizations — including Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers and the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan — have called on Ottawa to impose a moratorium on closing sidings used to load producer cars. But producers are basically powerless against the changes, said Eshpeter, who is also unhappy about how the changes were announced. CP notified farmers of the discontinued service through advertisements in local newspapers at least 60 days before the closures, said Cej, but Eshpeter said that isn’t enough notice.
“This is harvest. I learned about this just immediately before harvest. What’s the average farmer going to do in the middle of harvest? Not very much,” he said.
“There has been some push-back by farmer organizations, but it doesn’t seem that people representing the grain industry in Canada listen to farmers very much anymore.”