More grain cars roll as eastern passage nears opening

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz speak to reporters March 27 in Winnipeg. (Dave Bedard photo)

Canadian National Railway (CN) reports it’s nearing the federal government’s mandated goal of moving 5,500 grain cars per week, just as the Great Lakes grain shipping corridor is set to open for the season.

CN on Monday reported having spotted 5,102 hopper cars for loading at country grain elevators in Western Canada during crop Week 34. Over the past four weeks, the railway said, it’s been averaging 4,550 cars per week, or 21 per cent greater than its average March performance for the last decade.

The movement follows the federal government’s March 7 order-in-council, which gave CN and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) four weeks to ramp up grain car movements to 5,500 each per week.

CN CEO Claude Mongeau said in a release Monday the federal government has yet to regulate grain elevator companies, but it has clearly demanded all supply chain players deliver as much grain as possible toward the most efficient and fastest transit-time corridors.

This, he said, is the most effective way to allow farmers to deliver grain to Prairie elevators and ensure farmers receive cash owed by grain elevator companies as soon as possible. The faster space is created at country elevators, the more grain, from the most farmers, will be able to move to market, he added.

Mongeau thus ripped recent statements from the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA), which represents the Prairies’ major grain companies, suggesting CN and CP may be trying to flood Canada’s West Coast and Thunder Bay port terminals with grain while cars are also needed to move grain to destinations in the U.S. and Eastern Canada. [Related story]

The WGEA, CN retorted Monday, “has complained all winter about having too many vessels waiting to be loaded on the West Coast, and the highly efficient Thunder Bay Port corridor is about to open for shipping very large quantities of grain to export market.”

“Having wrongly singled out railways and unrealistically called for a near-doubling of rail car capacity since last fall, it is now time for grain elevators companies to step up to the capacity they claim to have, and do so in the corridors that will benefit Canadian farmers the most,” Mongeau said Monday.

“Had to happen”

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Winnipeg, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said CN and CP are “definitely fulfilling” the requirements of the order, but when asked about grain movement to the U.S., acknowledged he’s “not sure that has been something we can crow about.”

Ritz and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt noted Thursday the combined target of 11,000 cars per week, equalling roughly one million tonnes of grain, was a tonnage commitment chosen by CN and CP. The tonnage requirement, they said, was also meant to take “all corridors” into account while not interfering with movement of other goods or commodities.

The current government, Raitt emphasized, is “not a big fan of government intervention” such as enforcing freight volumes of a given commodity, but in this situation the order “had to happen.”

Ritz on Thursday also granted the railways, in moving grain cars to meet the order, “are concentrating on volume, not necessarily value.”

The federal government last week also directed additional icebreaker support to the Great Lakes corridor, where the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. on March 17 postponed the opening of the seaway’s Montreal-Lake Ontario stretch to Monday (March 31) from the previous Friday, due to “unusually heavy ice conditions.”

The seaway’s Welland Canal, meanwhile, opened Friday as scheduled.

Raitt last Thursday noted the additional icebreaking capacity was meant to help ensure the March 31 opening date. Given the ice conditions, she said, the opening date “was starting to slip into April 2, April 3.” — Network


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