Rail shipment delays causing 'dire situation' for Canadian farmers

A rail car crunch is taking a toll on Canadian farmers, who have been waiting months to get their product to market and are having a hard time generating cash as a result.

Railways say they're responding by adding locomotives, crews and cars

Grain pours into a truck on Bill Prybylski's farm in Willowbrook, Sask. His products are ready to be transported, but he has no idea when they will get to their final destination. (Mike Zartler/CBC )

Bill Prybylski produces thousands of bushels of grain on his farm in Willowbrook, Sask., about two hours northeast of Regina.

But most of his product is still in storage or loaded onto trucks when it should have been shipped already. Prybylski is one of thousands of people in Canada's agriculture industry affected by a rail car crunch.

Just 25 per cent of Prybylski's grain has been transported this season. Usually, he said, 50 per cent of his product is hauled by now.

"It's frustrating," he said.

"We know we have financial commitments and the only way to meet those commitments are to move the grain, and that's just not happening."

Prybylski is waiting for the call to deliver his product to a grain elevator so it can be transported by rail to a port — and then to an overseas customer.

Extreme weather, high demand

The railways blame the harsh winter, high demand and a lack of rail cars and crew for the backlog.

"Perhaps that's poor management on their part because the crop is there," Prybylski said. 

"They know every year they got to ship this amount of grain out, so you would hope they would plan ahead to get the job done."

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture held a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday demanding the federal government come up with an action plan to resolve the issue.

The federation is urging the Senate to pass Bill C-49, the Transportation Modernization Act, as soon as possible.

The legislation would level the playing field for farmers and railways by imposing reciprocal penalties on rail companies for late deliveries.

Transport Canada is in close contact with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway to ensure grain continues to move, according to ministry press secretary Delphine Denis.

Railways have plans to invest in more crews, locomotives and hopper cars to ensure they have long-term capacity and resources in place, she said. 

Railway performance scrutinized

Some people in the agriculture sector were hoping Ottawa would offer a solution in the federal budget.

But it did not provide additional support for the export holdup.

"We're in a dire situation," said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.

"This isn't the transportation system that we envisioned for our country."

These are the longest rail shipment delays seen in five years, according to Sobkowich.

Railways provided 38 per cent of the rail cars ordered during the week of Feb. 12, according to Ag Transport Coalition, which represents several grain associations.

During the same week, CN delivered 17 per cent of grain shippers needed and CP hauled 66 per cent.

"That's horrendous performance," Sobkowich said.

"We really empathize with the farmers." 

CN, CP expect improvements soon

Farmers don't get paid until they make a delivery, shippers can face demurrage rates on vessels and there can be penalties for missed deadlines. 

In an emailed statement sent to CBC News, CP spokesperson Jeremy Berry said the company is increasing crews and locomotives. In spite of significant weather challenges, he said shipments are up 30 per cent crop-year to date north of Regina and west toward Edmonton.

Meanwhile, the movement of grain is three per cent below the prior three-year average for CN, that company's spokesperson Kate Fenske said in an email to CBC News, adding the issue is a priority. 

By end of March, Fenske wrote CN expects to add about 400 new conductors and another 375 by end of June. 

Both railways expect milder weather to improve performance.

But Sobkowich warns circumstances could become worse once road bans come into effect, limiting the transportation of heavy equipment when milder weather makes the roads softer.

He said this could cause more delivery stalls since farmers may have a challenge getting their product to grain elevators.

"Our reputation is degrading every week," said Greg Northey, director of industry relations with Pulse Canada.

"If we're not seen as a reliable supplier, we lose customers."

Enact legislation to help farmers, urges MP

Those customers may turn to Canada's competitors, namely the U.S. and Russia, Northey said. 

Saskatoon-Grasswood Conservative MP Kevin Waugh is calling for Bill C-49 to be split up so the portion that would help the agriculture sector can be enacted sooner.

"It's too big," Waugh said about the legislation. "We need to get this down."

As it stands now, the bill is not expected to pass until summer.

In the meantime, Prybylski is trying to do whatever he can to generate cash.

He's sold feed to local markets, hay and all his calves.

"It definitely takes a toll knowing that every day it's a struggle," Prybylski said. 

"Once the grain starts moving again, we can catch up on our bills."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome:


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