It’s something that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years ago — a major grain group issuing a news release just to praise the performance of the two big railways.
“The Western Canadian Wheat Growers offers congratulations to both CN Rail and CP for the record volume of grain and grain products moved in January 2021,” the first sentence of the news release states.
CN didn’t so much set a record as smash one. It moved 2.95 million tonnes in January — a whopping 27 per cent more than the old record mark of 2.33 million tonnes set in 2019. CP also took advantage of a warm January to move 2.22 million tonnes, beating the record it set last January by six per cent.
“Winter months have been a transportation challenge in the past, but this year, record volumes of our grain were successfully moved,” wheat growers chair Daryl Fransoo noted in his group’s release.
Despite the deep freeze that took over at the end of the month, January temperatures were well above normal throughout Western Canada. That’s critical for freight trains as air brakes don’t work as well when temperatures are very cold and that reduces both the length of trains and their speed.
But farm groups in the grain sector have long complained that the two railways have not made grain shipments a priority and that has hurt Canada’s reputation with buyers.
“A reliable transportation chain is paramount,” said the wheat growers’ news release. “To lose our competitive edge through transportation slowdowns, input costs or weather disasters means our competitors take the upper hand.”
The pandemic, at least in its early days, helped grain movement as some of the railways’ other freight business dropped off. But both CN and CP say the increase in grain shipments is a direct result of heavy spending on new equipment and upgrading rail infrastructure.
“Since 2018, CN has invested over $10 billion in track, locomotives, and rail cars, including the purchase of over 2,500 new high-capacity grain hopper cars,” CN said in announcing its January results.
CP noted it has bought or leases 3,800 new high-efficiency hopper cars (that each carry 15 per cent grain) to its fleet.
“CP continues to invest in its grain fleet with additional hopper cars coming into service each week,” the railway said.
As of the end of January, CP had shipped 16 million tonnes of grain and grain products in the 2020-21 crop year — more than 13 per cent than for the same period a year earlier. CN’s grain haul to the end of January was 17.5 million tonnes, 17 per cent better than the record set two years ago.
And long may that continue, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers said in its release.
“We are reassured that this puts Canada back on track as a reliable shipper and grain farmers expect it to stay that way,” said Jim Wickett, another Saskatchewan producer on the group’s executive.
“Both rail companies deserve credit for upping their game and we ask them to continue to grow this level of service.”