Exploring alternatives to grain transportation: Part 2

The rhetoric by provincial and federal Agriculture Ministers is ramping up rapidly as they all try to show their concern

The rhetoric by provincial and federal Agriculture Ministers is ramping up rapidly as they all try to show their concern over the clogged grain transportation system. At meetings across Western Canada, demands are made that something must be done to force the railways to take up the slack and improve their performance.

In response the railways sing a similar tune that they are doing the best they can in a difficult winter situation, and that’s about where it stands. History will show that once the weather improves, railcar shipments will increase as railways are able to put more trains on their tracks. I expect by this summer much of the fuss over the backlog will have been resolved as it has with past grain shipping calamities. It’s all happened before.

You can expect that about this time next year, some of the studies that have commissioned to find what the problem was with grain transportation in 2014 will be published with the usual conclusions. That being weather and bumper crops do indeed cause problems with grain transportation, the study will then be promptly shelved joining other such similar documents. Studies like this are like generals always re-fighting the last war and not planning for the next one.

What we need studied is not what has happened but what needs to be done to streamline and improve the system so that when a glut occurs, an action plan can be put into place.

The first notion the entire industry needs to accept in developing an action is to assume that another grain transportation disaster will in fact occur next winter. If you don’t have that attitude procrastination will set in immediately and nothing will be done.

Another consideration is that there needs to be a differentiation between regular incremental expansion of infrastructure and immediate logistical steps to deal with a bumper crop that needs to be moved right now. What needs to be kept in mind is that the industry including railways knew last August that a bumper crop was on its way, they also knew that winter weather delays were quite possible as they have been in the past. But apparently some sort of paralysis sets in – being there does not seem to be an emergency action plan.

Here are some thoughts that might go into such a plan.

— If there is a shortage of grain cars can’t some retainer arrangement be made with other industries that use similar cars – like potash companies or some U.S. industries to use their cars for a few months.

— If trains can’t get through some Canadian mountain passes, how about a deal with US railways to use their right-of-way and then route them back into Canada at Vancouver. This is already done between the CPR and CNR on their own trackage when problems arise.

— Are there any lessons to be learned from the way coal is shipped on railways and loaded onto ships. Perhaps there is a way to use their methods on a temporary basis. Is there a direct railcar to ship loading process possible, like what occurs at coal terminals.

— Can American grain terminals be used at least on a temporary basis. What about a contingency deal with American railway companies to haul Canadian grain in a glut situation.

I expect the underlying problem with these types of ideas is that some sector will have to pay the additional costs and some will lose business.

But that may be the only alternative to doing nothing and waiting for the problem to resolve itself with time. If that is the case and no different action plan is going to be consideration, then its time to admit that and stop going through the dog and pony show every time there is a transportation problem. It’s that old adage about insanity — that being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

Will Verboven edits Alberta Farmer.

— Ahead of the Heard