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Farmers seek ‘urgent’ action from Senate on rail service

Farm groups urge passage of new rules on rail penalties, interswitching

Groups representing Canadian grain growers touched down in Ottawa Thursday to urge quick passage of legislation to avoid a sequel to the grain handling logjam of 2013-14.

Representatives from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Grain Growers of Canada, Keystone Agricultural Producers, Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, Alberta Federation of Agriculture and B.C. Agriculture Council went public with a “unified message” for “urgent action” by Parliament to pass Bill C-49.

Introduced in the Commons last May by Transport Minister Marc Garneau, C-49, the Transportation Modernization Act, passed third reading in the Commons in November and has been parked at second reading in the Senate since December, when it was referred to the Senate standing committee on transport.

The bill imposes data-reporting requirements on railways, sets up rules for long-haul interswitching between railways and allows shippers to seek “reciprocal” financial penalties in their service agreements with railways.

The groups warned Thursday that the major railways’ shipping performance has been “steadily deteriorating over the winter months,” noting Canadian National Railway (CN), during the week of Feb. 11, “only supplied 17 per cent of rail cars ordered by grain companies.”

The GGC, in a separate release Monday, cited data from the Ag Transport Coalition, showing CN and Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CP) car order fulfillment at 38 per cent of demand during grain week 29, the week of Feb. 12.

“The majority of farmers are restricted to only one available rail company for shipments, leaving them no options other than to watch while their grain sits unsold,” the groups said Thursday.

“Despite assurances that they were prepared, railways seem to be caught off guard by cold weather,” GGC president Jeff Nielsen said Monday.

“Once again railways are proving that they can’t be trusted to move our grain and proving why the grain industry needs tools to be able to hold the railways to account, or at least to be able to take our business to another railway.”

Extended interswitching, introduced in 2013, allows shippers to get a competing railway to haul their load if it’s within 160 km of an interchange with that railway. C-49’s provisions for “long-haul” interswitching would allow for distances up to 1,200 km, or 50 per cent of the total haul in Canada, whichever is greater.

“No other sector would stand for the poor service that the grain industry receives,” Art Enns, GGC’s vice-president, said Monday. “But no other sector is at the mercy of the railways the way the grain industry is.

“What’s worse is that the railways continue to penalize the grain industry when there is a slippage in performance, but there is nothing we can do when the railways only show up a third of the time they’re needed.”

The groups noted the Senate is now “considering amendments to the bill that will make it more meaningful,” but said farmers now “need the Senate to complete this review quickly so that the legislation can be moved through the House and implemented before spring seeding begins.”

The current lack of grain movement, they said, “is putting hard working farm families in a position where seed, fuel and fertilizer bills must go unpaid and where they do not know if they can make rent and mortgage payments.”

“We have to get this legislation,” APAS president Todd Lewis told the Senate transport committee on Feb. 14. “Sure, it has some wrinkles and some warts to it, but overall we need to see this bill passed so that we can get on with negotiations and try to get a better system.”

APAS members, he said, “are saying, ‘Let’s get on with it so we can start negotiating with grain companies, see how these new measures are going to affect our service and hope it improves.'” — Network