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Province pushes for better rail freight service

The province is pushing Ottawa to help ensure a reliable supply of rail cars to northern B.C., where there is a chronic shortage of freight cars.

“The impact of unreliable, and inadequate, rail service extends far beyond grain producers in northern B.C.,” Bruce Ralston, Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology stated in a letter to federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau. “Lumber mills and other industries, from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson, are also being seriously impacted by the lack of rail service.”

Ralston has asked Garneau to work with northern B.C. chambers of commerce to develop plans for improving oversight and performance of Canadian National (CN) Rail’s system in the region.

“Minister Garneau needs to convey that the Prairie backlog at CN Rail is having a detrimental impact on northern B.C. families and businesses,” said Ralston. “Companies looking to invest in northern B.C. communities are understandably discouraged from doing so because of the risk and uncertainty caused by CN Rail’s unreliable service. While the recent apology from CN is an important acknowledgement of how serious the situation has become, longer-term solutions need to be found.”

Earlier this month CN moved to help clear backlogs for Prairie grain producers, who are also experiencing a shortage of freight cars.

“We apologize for not meeting the expectations of our grain customers, nor our own high standards,” Ruest said, in a March 7 news release. “The entire CN team has a sense of urgency and is fully focused on getting it right for farmers and our grain customers, regaining the confidence of Canadian businesses, and protecting Canada’s reputation as a stable trade partner in world markets. Moving the Canadian economy is in our DNA. We can and we will do much better, and that starts today – no excuses. CN has taken immediate steps to mobilize our proud and dedicated team of railroaders – the best in the business – in order to move more grain faster.”

These steps include:

  • Offering incentives for key operating employees to delay retirement and postpone vacations, and for recently-retired operating employees to return to work
  • Deploying qualified management employees to operate extra trains
  • Adding train crews in Western Canada: about 250 conductors put in the field in last three months of 2017, with about 400 conductors coming into the field in the first three months of 2018, and an additional 375 from April to June
  • Leased 130 locomotives to increase capacity in Western Canada, almost all of which are now online
  • Investing over $250 million this year to build new track and yard capacity in Western Canada to boost supply chain fluidity and build in capacity resiliency for future grain crops

The news release does not specifically mention northern B.C. or lumber producers.

It’s an issue that Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer raised about a month ago.

“One farmer who visited my office in Fort St. John told me that CN hadn’t delivered any grain cars to the Viterra grain elevator in over five weeks,” Zimmer said in his weekly column March 12. “That is completely unacceptable. How can our local farmers succeed if they can’t move their goods to and from the region?”

Zimmer said that for the week of February 18, CN and CP only supplied a combined 32 per cent of the cars requested – an all-time low. CN supplied 17 per cent of the cars ordered while CP supplied 50 per cent of the cars ordered.

He has written to Ruest as well and is awaiting a response.

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