Farm leaders again ask government to act

But with spring road bans and seeding season approaching, any moves are likely ‘too little, too late’

With winter coming to an end, rail service should improve — but that will come too late for farmers needing cash before seeding.
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“Too little too late.”

That comment from the president of the Grain Growers of Canada likely sums it up for many producers across the Prairies.

Jeff Nielsen. photo: Supplied

“While western grain farmers are pleased to see that the government and railways have recognized the negative impact that poor rail service is having on farmers, it shouldn’t take a crisis on the Prairies to get grain moving,” Alberta farmer Jeff Nielsen said in a statement.

“The grain value chain has been living with plummeting performance for months and any improvements in rail service will unfortunately come at a time when spring road bans and planting will limit the amount of grain farmers can move. Unfortunately, this may all be too little too late.”

Nielsen appeared before the House agriculture committee last week to once again press for the passage of the Transportation Modernization Act. He was one of seven reps from farm groups (including the Alberta Wheat Commission) who travelled to Ottawa to appear before the committee to again say that passage of Bill C-49 is the first step needed to get grain moving.

“As farmers start to prepare our operations for seeding, we are feeling the impacts of the current backlog in the system,” Alberta Wheat director Warren Sekulic, who farms near Rycroft, told the ag committee. “With my own contracts pushed back, I am several months behind on my deliveries and therefore several months behind on being paid.

“The resulting challenges in cash flow from these delays will roll into the upcoming growing season.”

Grain movement improved slightly earlier this month — but was still not good, said the Ag Transport Coalition in its latest report.

“CN and CP supplied a combined 53 per cent of hopper cars ordered in grain week 32 representing a slight improvement from the 45 per cent of cars supplied on time (the previous) week,” the coalition said in its weekly report.

“CN supplied 50 per cent of cars ordered while CP supplied 57 per cent of cars ordered. CN and CP combined will enter week 32 with 3,931 outstanding orders — a 14 per cent improvement (-653) from the position entering week 32. While the overall number of outstanding orders has declined, this reflects a reduction of 588 outstanding orders by CN and a nominal reduction of 65 orders in CP’s position.”

Meanwhile, infighting is at risk of derailing a coalition of shippers. The seven industry associations want changes to the bill that would require the railways to provide cost and pricing information to the Canadian Transportation Agency to use in freight rate dispute resolutions and to enable the agency to launch investigations into rail service delays without waiting for a formal complaint.

But they disagree on calls from the grain sector for Ottawa to intervene to speed up grain shipments because that would only cause headaches for other shippers.

“A singular emphasis on grain has the unintended but inevitable consequence of exacerbating rail service issues for other commodity sectors, skewing the railways’ allocation of scarce capacity resources towards the movement of grain,” said the coalition’s letter to the Senate distributed by the Mining Association of Canada.

The original letter (agreed to by Pulse Canada, Fertilizer Canada, the Canadian Chemical Industry Association, the Western Canadian Shippers Coalition, and the Forest Products Association of Canada) had argued there is a need for a “permanent regulatory mechanism” so the federal government can quickly step in if there are problems in rail movement.

— With files from contributor Alex Binkley

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