Rail system inadequate for record crop

Tyler
Tyler Clarke
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An overtaxed rail system is hurting Saskatchewan farmers, including Prince Albert area farmers, who are taking a “substantial” financial hit.

Rail traffic

“Rail transportation is a huge issue,” Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback concluded.

“The railways have really fallen flat, here … The reality is, we’ve got customers who want the product, we’ve got the product sitting here in the grain bins, and we don’t have a rail system to get it to port, and that’s very disappointing and frustrating.

“The railways need to pick up their game and start moving their product.”

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart said that the province’s rail system is adequate for an average crop in perfect conditions.

“On paper (rail service is) probably adequate, but things don’t work like that … But, we never have perfect conditions,” Stewart clarified.

“They cut the length of trains in half in cold weather, and we saw car unloads plummet in December with cold weather, and of course there are snow issues in the winter, so you really can’t put a number on their actual capacity.”

On top of that, last year’s crop yield set a new record for Saskatchewan, and at 38.4 million tonnes surpassed the 36.6-million tonne long-term goal the province hoped to reach by 2020.

“The second year of our 10-year growth plan we surpassed our target, so it’s a big crop,” Stewart said.

With grain remaining at a standstill throughout the province, Hoback said that many of his constituents have been left frustrated.

“All I know is, when I talk to farmers they’re upset,” he summarized, adding that rail companies charge a higher premium for transportation.

“That’s just the market saying we can’t take delivery of the product right now, but who’s paying for that? The farmer does.”

The farmer is also losing out on the benefits that come with selling during peaks in the market, Hoback said, noting that ”they’ve got a year to move it -- not two years -- so they’ve got to get this crop moved.”

Recognizing a problem, both Stewart and Hoback asserted that their respective levels of government are taking action.

On both ends is support of the Northern Gateway Pipeline from Alberta to the coast and the Keystone Pipeline that will run through southern Saskatchewan into the United States.

The railways have really fallen flat, here … The reality is, we’ve got customers who want the product, we’ve got the product sitting here in the grain bins, and we don’t have a rail system to get it to port, and that’s very disappointing and frustrating. Randy Hoback

Oil and gas are adding strain to the rail system in Saskatchewan, Hoback explained, noting, “That stuff could easily go through a pipeline, so why is it moving by rail if a pipeline is lot safer and more efficient way of moving that product to begin with.”

“The sooner we can get these pipelines in place the better it’s going to be in the movement of grain and potash and other commodities,” Stewart said.

The federal government put a level of service legislation into place last year that was intended to help shippers with any complaints they might have against railways.

“It’s been frustrating, though, because the shippers have been complaining about a lack of service and yet they haven’t gone through the formal process of doing the complaint,” Hoback said. “Let’s see how the legislation works -- let’s test it, let’s try it out.”

Hoback said that the Standing Committee on Agri and Agri-Food has long-talked about the rail issue.

“It’s not public, but in the same breath it is happening, it’s a lot of MPs phoning in, raising these concerns and fighting on behalf of these farmers,” Hoback said.

One roadblock is the fact that the province is dealing with private enterprise, with the Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway owning the tracks that deliver grain to the ports, Stewart said.

“I think it’s worthwhile for all the players to know that (the provincial government is) acting as a watchdog and we’re staying abreast of the situation and we’ll continue to put pressure on not only the railroads but the grain companies and the port authority -- all of the players to ramp up their capacity do deal with a big crop,” he said.

“I won’t be very many years before we can see (the 2013 yield) as an average crop, or at least a big crop instead of an exceptional crop.

“Our producers are among the earliest adopters of new technology of any agricultural producers in the world, and we’re really proud of that, but the other players in the industry have to try and keep up.”

Organizations: Northern Gateway Pipeline, Keystone Pipeline, Standing Committee on Agri Canadian National Railway Canadian Pacific Railway

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Alberta, Southern Saskatchewan United States

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