MPs hear from grain groups and railways in emergency meeting on backlog

After a two-week break for MPs, the House of Commons agriculture committee reconvened for an emergency meeting to discuss the grain backlog in Western Canada on Monday.

The meeting included presentations from both CN and CP Rail, as well as witnesses representing almost a dozen farm groups and grain shipping companies (see list below). Former MP Gerry Ritz, who was agriculture minister during the rail backlog in 2013-14, also spoke to the committee.

During the first hour of the meeting, CN and CP executives reiterated their commitment to improved performance, while citing winter weather as a major contributor to the backlog. They also acknowledged the need for improved information-sharing for planning, and the negative impact the backlog is having on Canada’s international reputation as a reliable supplier.

The rest of the meeting, which was interrupted to allow members to vote in the House of Commons, was dedicated to hearing from farm groups and grain shippers, who were unanimous in calling on Parliament to pass Bill C-49 — the Transportation Modernization Act — as soon as possible. The witnesses also suggested several amendments to the bill, including granting the Canadian Transportation Agency “own-motion authority” to investigate problems with rail performance, changes to long-haul interswitching, and the expansion of the maximum revenue entitlement on grain shipments to soybeans and chickpeas.

Rick White of the Canadian Canola Growers Association and Ron Bonnett of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture noted immediate government action could include raising the maximum limit on the federal government’s advance payment program.

“An easy fix would be to raise that limit to whatever the government would be comfortable with,” said White, suggesting the cash advance maximum could be doubled from the current limit of $400,000 to $800,000.

Former Ag Minister Gerry Ritz and Grain Growers of Canada president Jeff Nielsen speaking to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture on Monday.

Ritz emphasized the need for overall increased rail capacity to the West Coast, particularly with the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “There’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure that’s needed,” said the former ag minister.

“The weak link is still getting it from the delivery point on the prairies to the coast or the south or wherever you’re trying to ship it. That’s where the infrastructure needs to be picked up,” said Ritz, while also discussing measures the government could implement immediately, such as an order-in-council with weekly shipping requirements as was done in 2013-14.

Ian Boxall of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan noted the backlog has not only affected grain exports, but there are also challenges with getting fertilizer supplies in by rail in time for seeding.

There had been some earlier calls from farm groups for another order-in-council from Ottawa, but with spring around the corner, the priority at Monday’s meeting was clearly on getting C-49 passed, with amendments.

“We’re past the point of severe weather, which is the biggest red herring I’ve seen,” said Grain Growers of Canada president Jeff Nielsen, stressing the need to pass Bill C-49.

Warren Sekulic, Daryl Fransoo, and Dan Mazier discussing the grain backlog at the ag committee meeting.

“Let’s make sure we’re not just talking. We need to be doing,” emphasized Daryl Fransoo, director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers.

The railways noted performance has improved in recent weeks, as winter comes to an end, although grain shippers noted along with warmer weather come road weight restrictions and seeding activity. CN and CP supplied a combined 53 percent of grain car orders in the most recent shipping week, according to the Ag Transport Coalition, up from 45 percent in the previous week.

With farm and grain industry representatives in town, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay took the opportunity to meet with the Crop Logistics Working Group on Monday morning.

“These current issues with the grain backlog must be resolved quickly, but we also need to ensure they’re not repeated,” said MacAulay. “This is one of the key reasons our government introduced Bill C-49, which gives grain shippers the tools they need…We urge all Parliamentarians to pass this critical piece of legislation as quickly as possible, because Canada needs a world-class transportation system not only for this year or next year — but for many years to come.”

More to come…

Grain backlog meeting witnesses:

CN Rail: Michael Cory, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice-President and Sean Finn, Executive Vice-President and Chief Legal Officer
CP Rail: Jeffrey Ellis, Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary, and James Clements, Vice-President, Strategic Planning and Transportation Services
Canadian Canola Growers Association: Rick White, Chief Executive Officer
Canadian Federation of Agriculture: Ron Bonnett, President
G3 Canada: Mark Dyck, Senior Director of Logistics
Western Grain Elevator Association: Tyler Bjornson, Consultant
As an individual: Hon. Gerry Ritz
Grain Growers of Canada: Jeff Nielsen, President
Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan: Ian Boxall, Vice-President
Alberta Wheat Commission: Warren Sekulic, Director
Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association: Daryl Fransoo, Director
Keystone Agricultural Producers: Dan Mazier, President

 

Kelvin Heppner

Kelvin Heppner is a field editor and radio host for RealAgriculture and RealAg Radio. He's been reporting on agriculture on the prairies and across Canada since 2008(ish). He farms with his family near Altona, Manitoba, and is on Twitter at @realag_kelvin. @realag_kelvin

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