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CN delays closures for producer car sidings

Canadian National (CN) has pledged to hold off on closing over four dozen producer-car sidings until the end of this year, the federal government said Monday.

CN recently announced it would “delist” a number of chosen sites across all three Prairie provinces, after a required 60-day notice period ended Sept. 6 with no known offers from farmers to lease the rail sidings where the railway would previously pick up producer cars.

Producer cars are railway hopper cars that farmers can order to load themselves at a rail siding or producer-loading facility that’s sited closer to home than the nearest grain terminal.

A CN spokesperson said earlier this month that about three-quarters of the 53 sidings it plans to close have not been used at all in the last three years, while the remainder have seen less than five cars. Inspection and maintenance of the little-used sites, along with over 120 remaining producer-car sidings, is done at the railway’s expense.

Farmers’ groups have noted that the 60-day notice period to close a siding is a tiny window compared to the three years’ notice CN or Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) must give before shutting down a branch line.

“Meaningful consultation”

Alberta MP Rob Merrifield, the federal minister of state for transport, said in a release Monday he was “disappointed that a rail company would make significant changes that affect its customers without meaningful consultation.

“Immediately upon learning that CN Rail was going to be closing 52 producer car rail sites, I called its senior management into my office,” he said.

(Previous statements from various farm groups have counted 52 sites that CN plans to close, but according to CN, a 53rd site northwest of Edmonton at Paddle River is also slated for closure and was missed in those counts.)

Following the meeting, the government said, CN committed to keep the 52 producer car-loading sites that it had marked for closure by Sept. 6 in place until at least the end of 2009.

“This additional time will allow for consultations with farmers interested in maintaining any of these sites,” the government said.

As well, the government said, CN “has made assurances that it will engage farmers on the changes to its rail system.”

“Farmers have always had the choice to load their crops onto train via an elevator, or via a producer car loading site,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in the same release. “Our government is committed to maintaining that choice.”

The government also noted that a rail service review was recently initiated to look at issues and problems and propose solutions for improving rail services provided to shippers by Canada’s rail companies. A final report from that review is due in mid-2010.

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