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Successful short line facing uncertain future

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The Battle River Railway has been operating since 2008, but its operators aren’t sure how the line will adapt after changes to the wheat board.

The BRR covers 50.5 miles of track, from Cairon to Alliance, and has rights on eight miles of track from Cairon into Camrose. Towns along the route include Kelsey, Roseland, Heisler, Forestburg, Galahad and Alliance.

Area producers want to keep the former branch line operating because it means shorter hauls and no waiting in line, BRR grains manager Matt Enright told attendees at FarmTech.

“It’s really attractive to the local community, rather than hauling their grain up on the highway,” said Enright, who also operates a 2,100-acre grain farm near Rosalind.

The business is volume based, so if the railway moves more cars, the cost per car decreases. BRR operators are concerned that changes to the CWB will mean fewer cars shipped.

Forestburg is the most developed site, with 15 hopper bins for storage and a working grain elevator. Other businesses have negotiated with the short line to do business that is mutually beneficial. A crop management group has set up six tanks in Kelsey to hold liquid fertilizer brought in from Manitoba. The group wanted to build there because it could get track side space, which it wouldn’t be able to get if it negotiated with CP or CN.

The BRR started as the Battle River Producer Group in 2003, the same year CN threatened to discontinue this section of the line. The group organized to assemble 50-car blocks so they could get service from CN. At the peak, the producer group was running 650 cars a year. As the number rose, the number of cars required by CN rose as well.

New-generation co-op

In 2008, the Alliance branch line went up for sale. The producer car group formed the Battle River New Generation Co-operative, raising about $3.5 million through the sale of shares and negotiating a mortgage with Agriculture Financial Services Corporation, a provincial Crown corporation. There are four classes of membership within the co-op. Some classes of members are allowed to vote and control the organization, others get preferred freight rates, and others have investment shares that pay annual dividends.

When the line is working, operators go to Camrose, get the empty cars and bring them along the line. They have 48 hours to return the full cars to CN, or they risk paying a fee. Enright said having an independent line has resulted in better service and co-ordination with CN, as well as co-ordination with the various different loaders.

“The service has improved greatly. You know if there’s a delay in the cars as soon as CN and I know,” said Enright.

The co-op also received a grant from the Rural Development Fund to implement a custom-blending program.

“When producers load their grain into a car, they know what grade they’re going to get paid for that week,” Enright said. “The protein, dockage and weight of that car is still determined at port, so it’s CGC determined.”

Samples are collected and sent for grading, then in-house software calculates the best blend possible for grain, taking into consideration initial payments, protein levels and different characteristics of the grain.

“This is essentially what the elevator does for you. But we like to think that it’s transparent and we are giving you the best possible deal that we can,” Enright said.

The co-op then builds composite trains.

“We build 25- to 50-car blocks of No. 1 CWRS, so the block when graded as a whole, grades No. 1,” Enright said.

Each car, as well as the composite train, is graded.

“The big reason this works is that the wheat board is our partner and it makes it happen at the port end,” he said. “It works with Prince Rupert Grain, which is where all the composites go, to make this happen.”

It’s not clear what will happen once the wheat board loses its monopoly, he said.

“The wheat board will still be there, but there’s just another hoop we have to jump through to get the contract from the wheat board first. It could end up being very good, or not very good for us, we just don’t know right now.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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