Railways say they’re more prepared than ever

Increased capital spending and better technology will improve performance, CN and CP both say

When the federal government passed the Transportation Modernization Act in 2018, the headline news was the requirement for railways to negotiate level-of-service agreements with grain companies — and face penalties for poor service.

But the act also requires the railways to produce ‘winter plans’ to show how they’ll keep grain moving when the weather turns foul.

In their recently released plans, both CN Rail and CP Rail say they’ve upped their game considerably. Here are some highlights from both reports.

CN’s winter plan

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“CN has completed a record $7.4 billion of capital investments in the past two years,” the document states. “In doing so, it has significantly enhanced safety and increased its resilience in dealing with and recovering from severe weather, network disruptions and other events that can alter network fluidity.”

That sum includes some double tracking and improved port infrastructure but also 260 new locomotives. These new locomotives will perform better in winter, CN says, because they use 100 per cent alternating current (instead of direct current) and this improves traction and reduces wheel slippage.

When it gets really cold, trains need to be shortened because the air brake system doesn’t work as well. To help combat this, the railway said it used 20 air distribution cars during the winter of 2017-18 and “in recognition of their significant benefit, CN has consistently increased its fleet of these innovative assets.”

It bought another 41 more air distribution cars in the past year and now has 101 in total.

“These are positioned in the train to assist in supplying a consistent flow of air through the brake lines all the way to the end of the train. In cold temperature, this enables CN to maintain longer trains, ensuring network fluidity.”

In addition to building another 140 miles of double track on its main line (mostly in Western Canada), it has extended sidings (so “two trains can meet and pass safely without impacting network fluidity”); increased yard track capacity in Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Melville, Sask.; and now has seven automated inspection portals (“allowing for the full inspection of a train at track speed versus a roll-by inspection at train departure from a yard, significantly reducing initial train start delays and improving yard capacity”).

“There is no doubt in my mind that our ability to perform in these challenging times is largely a result of the record-high strategic capital investments we are making in our infrastructure,” CN president and CEO JJ Ruest states in the report.

However, the report also says there’s a new issue that could slow down all rail traffic.

It says a new ministerial order that came into effect in April requires some trains carrying oil or liquid petroleum gas (LPG) to slow down to 40 m.p.h. from November to March, and then down to 30 m.p.h. in some areas when the temperature hits -25 C.

This will have “unintended consequences,” CN’s report states.

“Just as cars stuck behind a snowplow on the highway are forced to slow down to the speed of the snowplow, so too will trains stuck behind the crude oil and LPG traffic. The restrictions represent a speed reduction of up to 40 per cent in key corridors for trains subject to the order.”

CP’s winter plan

Like its rival, CP Rail touts its heavy capital spending.

“We expect that our total 2020 system-wide capital investment will be approximately $1.6 billion. This significant investment builds on our record 2019 $1.65-billion capital program,” CP’s winter plan states.

The company said it has “modernized” 201 main line locomotives and taken advantage of the slowdown in traffic during the pandemic to accelerate work in a number of subdivision. It lists 10 projects that are underway including track extensions at Cochrane, its Calgary terminal, Crowfoot, Suffield and Irvine.

The report also extols the capabilities of its new High Efficiency Product (HEP) trains.

“CP’s 8,500-foot HEP train model will change the Canadian grain landscape for years to come,” it states.

When pulling new high-capacity hopper cars, these trains can not only carry 40 per cent more grain than the old 7,000-foot trains but can be loaded in 16 hours or less at high-throughput elevators with a loop track (which allows trains to move continuously while being loaded so air brake pressure is maintained).

CP’s report also says another type of technology — predictive analytics — will improve its performance during winter.

“Through a variety of wayside and rolling stock sensors, strategically located on our network, we process massive amounts of data into in-memory data management technology with unparalleled analytical capabilities,” the report states.

It cites, as an example something called the “Automated Train Brake Effectiveness test.” It uses sensors to measure the temperature of wheels, which heat up when air brakes are applied. If the readings aren’t what’s expected, the rail car will be pulled for inspection. Although the test is used for cars carrying heavier loads (coal, sulphur, and potash), this sort of data allows the railway to “take preventive measures before an incident occurs” and so would presumably lessen the number of derailments that would affect all traffic.

CP’s report even includes a weather forecast. It says there’s a 50 to 55 per cent chance of La Niña conditions this winter and that could mean more cold weather but average snowfall in its western region.

For the full reports, go to www.cpr.ca or www.cn.ca and search for ‘winter plan.’

About the author

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Glenn Cheater

Glenn Cheater is a veteran journalist who has covered agriculture for more than two decades. His mission is to showcase the ideas, passions, and stories of Alberta farmers and ranchers.

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