Turns out farmers aren’t the only ones with a beef with Canada’s railways — operators of West Coast ports say inadequate rail service is holding them back, too.
At each stop, the same question was asked of port terminal officials.
“We pointedly asked, ‘Where’s the bottleneck in this transportation system?’ And they all said it was the rail system that held them back,” said Ammeter.
“As we moved up through the States and into Canada, almost every terminal said that rail service was a limiting factor for them,” said tour organizer Kara Barnes, the market development co-ordinator for Alberta Barley.
“They were operating not quite at capacity because of that.”
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The tour offered an “on-the-ground, hands-on education” on transportation logistic challenges, she said.
Ammeter said any doubts about the weak point in grain transportation were quickly laid to rest.
“Without fail, they were all saying that they’re open for business, they’re looking for business, they have more capacity… and their bottleneck in the system was the rail system,” he said.
American ports could be an outlet for Canadian grain save for the challenge of moving it to the U.S., said Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission, who also joined the tour.
“The terminal operators are certainly willing and eager to handle more grain. They do have more capacity,” he said. “It’s a question of rail capacity and getting the grain there as efficiently as possible.”
Connecting Canadian rail lines with American ones could reduce some of the challenges, but that solution is a ways off, he said.
“It’s a long-term proposition, but certainly one worth exploring in this environment.”
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However, the Canadian system also has “the capability to perform better,” said Steve.
“The system does have a tremendous amount of capacity to handle Prairie grain,” he said.
“Western Canadian ports handled a lot of grain this past crop year — north of 22 million tonnes — so although the grain didn’t move in as timely a fashion as we would have liked, it did move eventually.”
Ottawa’s order-in-council requiring the railways to move a million tonnes of grain a week and the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act (Bill C-30) helped, but some producers on the tour said it wasn’t a complete fix.
“We still have a backlog on the Prairies, and that’s something we’re still going to have to deal with,” said Alberta Pulse Growers president Richard Krikke. “I think we have more challenges than opportunities going forward.”
While “the passage of Bill C-30 definitely had an impact,” Krikke has had trouble moving his pulses since it came into effect in May.
“Coming into spring when it was legislated, I think the specialty crops took a back seat because the turnaround times weren’t quite as quick,” said the Neerlandia-area grain farmer.
“They picked the quickest turnaround time to just get their car numbers in place.”
Crops coming from Saskatchewan have also taken a back seat, said Allan Kuhlmann, chair of SaskBarley.
“I have three orders for spring wheat that were to be delivered by producer car on a short line in southwest Saskatchewan,” he said. “Those cars were ordered (last) September, and I haven’t got them yet.”
Given his own challenges, Kuhlmann advocates for a “corridor-specific” approach to moving grain.
“Emptying all of the grain out of Alberta and leaving all the grain in Saskatchewan is really not a solution,” he said.
Kuhlmann also sees potential for the barges used in the United States to move grain.
“The barge traffic into the Columbia River terminals, which are the ones we saw in the States… is more predictable than is rail traffic. If you want to move more grain to those ports, barges are the answer,” he said.
“If Canadians could somehow find a way to get our grain into that system, I think we would probably have an outlet that works well.”
American farmers have options, but most Canadian producers don’t, said Krikke.
“The railway is the only outlet for our export commodities other than truck, and that’s not viable at all,” he said.
This lack of competition — more than anything — is behind the breakdown in grain movement in Canada, said Ammeter.
“Because we don’t have true competition getting farmers’ grain from the Prairies to the port, we have to use the rail system,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be an antagonistic relationship between shippers and rail and farmers and rail, but when you have no true competition, it’s not like I can take my business elsewhere. I don’t have that opportunity.”
Ultimately, the railways are “far more responsible to their shareholders than they are to their customers,” said Ammeter.
“As the saying goes: The proof is in the pudding, and we’ve certainly seen that.”