Grain trains still moving, oil not hogging rail space, says minister

Keeping Alberta farmers’ crops flowing this coming harvest is at the forefront

Keeping Alberta farmers’ crops flowing this coming harvest is at the forefront of Alberta Transportation Minister Wayne Drysdale’s agenda, he said when he visited Stettler County on June 9.

Drysdale was visiting communities across Alberta to gather feedback on transportation issues, which included the backlog of grain and canola that hit farmers hard this past winter.

A long, colder than usual winter slowed down train traffic through the winter, which left farmers with product in their silos and nowhere to send it, since the elevators were already full.

Though a federal issue, Drysdale said it’s one the province is keeping an eye on, so it can be sure that everything that it can do to help keep the harvest moving to its destinations is done.

One thing, however, isn’t backing up grain: oil.

“Only three per cent of rail traffic is oil,” he said, citing numbers from the rail companies. “They’d rather actually transport grain. It’s the same cost (to them), but with far less risk.”

Grain and canola make up the largest chunk of rail transportation in country, Drysdale said, but oil has been much in the spotlight after the tragedy in Lac Megantic in June 2013, which killed 45 people, or the less-fiery derailment west of Edmonton last fall.

“Rail safety is a big factor,” Drysdale said. Despite last year’s incidents, rail transportation is “actually really safe,” he said.

“When you consider the number of incidents with how many trains go by, it’s actually very small.”

Drysdale said the delays with last year’s harvest was really just the “stars all align(ing) for a bad deal.” The rail companies, not expecting the above-average harvest, weren’t moving as many cars as they could have early in the fall, before the cold weather set in. Adding in the cold weather that forced trains to move slower and the length of the winter, delays were inevitable.

However, a large dent has been made in the backlog since the railways have been meeting the federally mandated daily transportation quotas, Drysdale noted. By the time the next harvest rolls in, he said he hopes that the rail companies will have moved most of the harvest.

A solution to the backlog will be multifold, Drysdale said, instead of just adding more rail capacity. Finding additional markets, including other shareholders in the system, and even redeveloping the system if necessary is something everyone should be looking at as an option.

And that’s why Drysdale is meeting with communities in the province, he said. He can gather information and bring it to the table to help ensure there’s no backlog this fall like there was last year.

“We’re hoping these meetings will get us a feel for the concerns of the communities in regard to transportation,” he concluded.


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