'Late in the game' for this season to mandate rail deliveries, says Sask. agriculture minister

Lyle Stewart said he would like to see Bill C-49 passed to modernize the Canadian Transportation Act.

Federal and provincial agriculture ministers push for Bill C-49 to modernize Canadian Transportation Act

The Trudeau government is putting pressure on Canada's two major railways to clear the growing backlog of grain shipments that is undermining the country's reputation as a reliable exporter and putting farmers in a cash-flow crunch. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

Time is running out on this grain shipping season, and while current grain delivery numbers are back up to "where they probably should have been all winter," impending road bans and the upcoming spring seeding season could hinder some farmers' efforts to get their product moving, said Saskatchewan's agriculture minister.

Lyle Stewart and his federal counterpart, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay, spoke on Wednesday, discussing the steps being taken to address a grain backlog that has been plaguing Western Canadian farmers.

"Some branch lines have been dramatically affected," Stewart told reporters, noting all farmers' circumstances are different. "It's costing a lot of farmers a substantial amount of money, and some of us, nothing."

Stewart said he had earlier asked the federal minister of transport for a temporary order to mandate rail deliveries, similar to what was put in place the last time a grain backlog took place five years ago. However, the minister wanted to first see what railways could do to address the situation by mobilizing more trains and employees. 

Saskatchewan's Minister of Agriculture Lyle Stewart speaks to the grain backlog facing Western Canadian farmers. (CBC News)

"It is getting late in the game for an order. I guess it's important that Bill C-49 has a good review by the Senate and then gets passed," Stewart said, referring to the bill modernizing the Canadian Transportation Act. 

The fact is, it's certainly the Government of Canada's responsibility to make sure the grain moves.- Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food

Stewart noted the province has one concern with the bill, dealing with an interswitching limit, with some producers arguing that the current provisions are too restrictive. Interswitching lets farmers and shippers pay a fee to move their product from one railway to another for a fee. Currently, the interswitching limits are set at 30 kilometres, while at one time, it used to be set at 160 kilometres.

While that part of the bill needs "minor revision," Stewart said Saskatchewan would like to see the bill passed.

MacAulay acknowledged the federal government's role in dealing with the backlog, saying, "The fact is, it's certainly the Government of Canada's responsibility to make sure the grain moves. It hasn't moved, we haven't moved enough in a timely fashion and that's what we have to deal with, and we are."

Canada's Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay spoke to his provincial counterpart about shared concerns on the grain backlog, and the steps underway to address the issue. (CBC News)

While the railways have to ensure there are enough cars, engines and employees to move the product, there are also railway infrastructure needs that need to be addressed, such as the addition of double tracks, he said.

MacAulay offered the example of Vancouver, saying while trains aren't making it as far west as the city, it does have a bottleneck that will further slow down the movement of grain.   

He described Bill C-49 as a move to implementing a proper system to move grain in a timely manner across Western Canada.

"It won't happen overnight, but we have to make sure that it happens."