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Lousy weather slows grain traffic, slightly

(Resource News International) — Extremely cold temperatures, high winds and huge snow accumulations across Canada have caused only a minor slowdown in the movement of rail cars filled with grain and oilseeds to export positions, industry sources said.

Temperatures across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have been in the -25° to -32°C range, with wind chills putting them into the -40°C range.

“The extreme cold does affect the railway companies and their ability to move grain and oilseeds to export locations,” said Mike Jubinville, an analyst with the farmer advisory service ProFarmer Canada in Winnipeg.

Huge snowfall accumulations in British Columbia and the Maritimes have also been reported.

Maureen Fitzhenry, media relations manager for the Canadian Wheat Board, said with the extreme cold during the past week and a half, there have been some delays in the rail movement of board grains.

“The delays have been in the range of a couple of days, which is fairly minor especially if we put it in the context of the past couple of years,” Fitzhenry said. “Overall, we are in much better shape than we were last year at the same time.”

She said the CWB was in good shape as shipments during the 2008-09 crop year were fully up to pace with its export targets.

“The big issue will be how fast the railways recover from these delays,” Fitzhenry said. The availability of extra railway capacity was expected to help the railways recover from these weather delays, she said.

While rail car movement to the West Coast and to customers in the U.S. has been delayed only a few days, the concern is that end-users have only a limited supply on hand due to “hand-to-mouth” purchase practices, she said.

“It is nothing major, but because customers are buying on a very hand-to-mouth basis due to falling prices, any delays in delivering supplies can become quite worrisome for these type of customers,” Fitzhenry said.

Mike LoVecchio, senior media relations manager for Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), said there has been little disruption to rail car movement on CPR track due to the extreme weather.

The railway institutes a winter rail operating program every year that anticipates cold weather and extreme snow conditions, he said.

Contingency plans

“You have to remember that Canadian Pacific has done this for 127 years now, and I think we know a thing or two about winter in Canada,” LoVecchio said.

However, he said, it’s fair to say cold weather is always hard on equipment and because of that, the company stages additional equipment as a contingency.

“We also beef up our crews as well as remind them about winter safety, including making sure proper winter gear is worn outdoors at these times,” he said.

LoVecchio acknowledged a slowdown in the movement of trains may be required during extreme weather conditions in some instances.

However, he said that’s an assessment done by the local area manager in consultation with the individual train’s crew.

LoVecchio said CPR also regularly deploys snowplows in order to keep its tracks clear, whether through the mountains or through bush country in Ontario.

“I can tell you that Canadian National (CN) is experiencing some extreme weather conditions and in turn has also deployed its winter rail operating plan,” said Bryan Tucker, senior manager of Canadian National Railway’s public affairs and media relations. “We are dealing with the conditions the best we can.”

The winter plans allow the company to deploy equipment and staff as needed, he said. Technology improvements were also helping CN deal with the extreme weather.

One of the technologies was the improved distribution of locomotive power. “It allows CN to maintain normal train lengths even in extreme cold,” Tucker said, explaining that normally, long trains have trouble keeping air pressure up for braking during extreme cold.

Essentially, he said, extra locomotive power is added to the train in the middle or in other strategic areas, which acts as another conduit for the air as well as allowing for more power.

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