Grain backlog legislation misses the mark, Sask. says

The Saskatchewan government says Ottawa needs to take more aggressive steps in addressing the grain backlog on the rail system.

Railways should face heftier fines for non-compliance, Saskatchewan argues

A grain elevator near Regina. Saskatchewan says legislation to encourage movement of grain does not go far enough. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)

The Saskatchewan government says Ottawa needs to take more aggressive steps in addressing the grain backlog on the rail system.

Legislation aimed at improving grain shipments was introduced by the federal government Wednesday. But Saskatchewan and agriculture groups in Western Canada say the move doesn't go far enough.

More aggressive steps were required.- Sask. Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart

If passed, the legislation would amend the Canada Grain Act and the Canada Transportation Act in a bid to clear grain that has been sitting in bins across the Prairies because of a rail transportation bottleneck.

Saskatchewan, and others, had been pressing the federal government to act for several months.

"We need good rail service in Saskatchewan and more rail service than we have had," provincial Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart said Thursday. "That's the bottom line for us. And grain's the fight today."

Stewart said he will continue to lobby Ottawa to increase the volume of grain that must be shipped. He also wants more substantial fines imposed for non-compliance.

Provincial officials also released a letter Stewart sent to his federal counterpart Thursday, expressing his disappointment with Lisa Raitt's legislation.

"The transportation problems over the last several months negatively impacted producer returns and severely eroded Canada's export reputation as customers sought out more reliable sources for their grain," Stewart wrote. "Given the critical nature of the problem and the railway's historical behaviour, our government believed more aggressive steps were required."

The proposed legislation would enshrine a previous government order for Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways to move a minimum amount of grain or face a penalty of up to $100,000 a day.

Stewart told reporters in Regina that one of his biggest concerns is that the legislation ends in August 2016.

"It can be renewed by the government in power at their whim, but that doesn't give much of a sense of security to producers or shippers," he said.

"And I don't think it gives much guidance to railways as to what they really need to do as far as reinvesting in equipment and rolling stock and that sort of thing. That to us is a substantial deficiency."

Franck Groeneweg, chairman of SaskCanola, called the legislation is a good first step to help move grain to ports, but more is needed.

The 2016 sunset clause worries him too.

"We don't want to make it a Band-Aid for the short term here. We want a permanent solution, something that's going to help all of the Canadian economy really," he said.

Groeneweg, who farms in Edgeley, Sask., northeast of Regina, said he had contracts that were made in September for delivery in January, but a lot of that grain is still sitting on his land. That means he's waiting for the income to pay his bills.

CN calls federal move 'heavy-handed'

CN and CP have blamed the backlog on the record size of the harvest and extremely cold weather. The companies have said they had to use shorter trains during freezing temperatures to ensure brakes could be used properly and that meant less capacity.

CN said Wednesday that it was "disturbed by Canadian government legislation introducing heavy-handed regulatory intrusion into rail grain transportation."

President and CEO Claude Mongeau said an outsized crop and winter conditions were beyond the company's control. The legislation does not address the root cause of the current grain situation and will do little to move more grain, now or in the future, he said.


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