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Grain movement chills in winter

Why can’t the railways push through winter?

Kyle Petluk hails from Alberta’s Peace River region. He was one of few farmer delegates at the Field on Wheels transportation conference in Winnipeg last December. Farmers are hurting after last winter, not CN and CP shareholders, he said during an interview.

“(The railways are) saying it’s a harsh winter — and, hey, we know all about it. We’re producers. Our livelihood is based on the weather,” said Petluk.

“Now they’re going to throw even more risk upon us saying, ‘Well, the movement is due to the weather. You’re going to incur that too?’ No.”

But no one should expect dramatic technological improvements anytime soon, Paul Miller told delegates at Field on Wheels. Miller is former vice-president of Canadian National (CN) and now serves as railroader-in-residence at the University Alberta.

“If a rail-roader comes to you and says ‘We’ve got winter solved this year,’ I’d be a little bit skeptical of that rail-roader,” said Miller.

Winter is tough on railroads because of the basic technology they use, Miller said. Once the mercury drops to -25 C, railways are plagued by all kinds of problems.

Steel rails contract and break. The ballast under the rail also freezes, so when wheels pass over the rail, there’s no give.

Steel wheels also suffer, getting into “a bit of an out-of-round condition,” Miller said. And when air brakes are applied, wheels heat and cool dramatically, producing a brittle material known as martensite, Miller said. The martensite flakes off the wheel, moisture gets under the flakes, and wheel pieces break away, he explained.

Cold weather also means shorter trains as more leaks develop in the air brakes. Miller said trains could be cut from 10,000 feet to 7,000 feet in cold weather.

Dropping those cars ties up the switching operation and another track in the yard, Miller said. It also delays the crew that’s doing that work.

“And now once the train is put back together at 7,000 feet, they have to again requalify the brake pipe and requalify the brake system,” said Miller. “All of this takes time. So time is kind of the enemy in the winter time.”

Operating conditions may be good through most of the network. But if a central location such as Chicago gets backed up, it ripples through the network, Miller explained.

Sometimes a railway has to choose between sending crews and locomotives to a specific customer’s location or the busy main line. Miller said when the chips are down in the winter, railways will try to keep their main lines and main terminals going.

“If they can’t keep the main core network fluid, dealing at a particular customer location frankly isn’t going to help. So those are the decisions that get made,” he said.

New technology

Steel-shattering cold only affects part of the rail network for part of the year. Historically, research has focused on things that will help all the railroads all the time, Miller said.

But even implementing innovations in air brake and rail technology is easier said than done, according to Miller.

The current air brake system is based on the Westinghouse system from the 1920s, Miller said. “It does not work, on the same train, in conjunction with the new system. So it’s a big, big logistical challenge.”

Both Miller and Jean-Jacques Ruest, executive vice-president of CN, mentioned portable compressed air stations as one way to make rail movement more efficient.

If it’s very cold, it takes two or three hours to charge the air lines before a safety test can be done, Ruest said. Elevator staff can use compressed air stations to boost pressure in the air lines of unit trains before the rail crew arrives. That way the crew can be moving in half an hour instead of three hours, Ruest said.

CN is offering a financial incentive, which Ruest said adds up to $5,000 per train, for grain companies to charge air lines of unit trains in the winter.

“So we’re very happy with those that joined us in that effort and we hope that more of them will decide to sign up, assuming moving grain in the winter time is mission critical for all of us in the supply chain,” Ruest told Field on Wheels delegates.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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