British Columbia

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in B.C. grain, lumber and other products sit idle due to rail backlog

Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of grain, lumber and other products are sitting idle in northern B.C. due to a months-long backlog on CN rail lines, causing industry groups to warn Canada is losing its competitive edge in international trade.

Province says CN's 'unreliable' rail service is harming investment in northern B.C.

Lumber from Canfor sits in the CN Rail intermodal facility in Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grain, lumber and other products are sitting idle in northern B.C. due to a months-long backlog on CN rail lines, causing industry groups to warn Canada is losing its competitive edge in international trade.

The province's trade minister has also asked the federal government to step in, saying CN's "unreliable" rail service is hurting the region.

"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," Bruce Ralston said Wednesday in a statement.

The Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA) has also asked the federal government to step in with a long-term strategy for rail lines and ports across the country.

Although the congestion has been reduced, industry groups say wait times at the Port of Prince Rupert more than doubled in recent months, hurting its reputation as a gateway for trade between Asia and the United States. (George Baker/CBC)

Wait times at the Port of Prince Rupert and Port of Vancouver have more than doubled, with product that used to sit for an average of three days now sitting for six or more days before moving on, according to the industry group.

These delays have hurt B.C.'s reputation as a gateway between Asian and North American markets, said CIFFA manager of public affairs Julia Kuzeljevich.

"If cargo's going to sit at the port for days at a time... it kind of destroys that competitive edge," she said, warning companies would start using ports in the United States if problems in Canada aren't fixed soon.

"It doesn't take much before our reputation and our reliability as a trading nation is affected."

Grain producer calls delays 'disastrous'

About 50 kilometres east of Dawson Creek, Robert Vander Linden is worried about how he's going to pay his bills.

The third-generation grain farmer has been unable to get roughly $100,000 worth of wheat to market because all the local grain elevators are full.

"It's just sitting on my farm," he said. "It's disastrous."

Rail cars sit idle at the CN Rail intermodal facility in Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Although the wheat has already been sold, Vander Linden doesn't get paid until he gets it to a grain elevator — something he's not sure will be able to happen until May.

Still, Vander Linden — who is treasurer for the B.C. Grain Producers Association — counts himself lucky because he knows other farmers who are even deeper in the hole due to the delays.  

"There will be producers in situations that will be faced with the unpleasant situation of not being able to meet their credit amounts," he said.

CN Rail says it is working to fix problems

Farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan have also been affected by the problems, which date back to early 2017.

Forestry, oil and gas, and consumer-delivery companies have also been affected, as has Via Rail's passenger service, which uses CN Rail lines and has faced waits as a result of increased rail traffic.

CN Rail has apologized for the delays, which spokesperson Kate Fenske attributed to an increase in rail traffic, with workload increasing by as much as 20 per cent in some areas. 

She also said steps are being taken to resume more regular service, including adding passing track between Prince Rupert, B.C., and Alberta.

The CN Rail yard in Prince George. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

While Kuzeljevich said it seems CN is taking the problem seriously, she said the problems extend beyond a single company and require political intervention.

"Canada's economy is dependent on trade," she said.

"We rely on that infrastructure system to be a lot more finely-tuned than it currently has been."

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.