Railways backlogged by B.C. wildfires, with harvest looming


Update, as of July 14: Both CN and CP once again halted traffic in the area around Lytton, B.C. on Wednesday due to new fires east of the community.

“For the safety of our crews, we are not currently running trains between Kamloops and Lytton, B.C.,” says CN in a network update distributed July 14. “At this time, we have no estimate on when we will be authorized to operate trains.”

“There are also fires raging very close to our track on the Lillooet line running from Vancouver to Prince George via Squamish, and as a result, we will not be running a train today on that line.”

The clock is ticking for CN Rail and CP Rail to clear the rail backlog that has piled up, as the wildfires in southern B.C. have halted train traffic through Canada’s busiest rail corridor.

CN said it planned to resume traffic on its mainline in the evening of July 13 — a full two weeks after the devastating June 30 fire damaged the railway, including a bridge near the town of Lytton.

“In coordination with local authorities and First Nations, CN staff have inspected the area and carried out repairs on a bridge that is vital to the passage of railway traffic through southern B.C.,” said CN in a statement issued Tuesday. “The repair work has progressed safely, and we expect the track to be ready for the resumption of traffic by 1900 PT today, July 13.”

Traffic was also shut down on CP’s mainline for almost a week. CP trains started rolling through the area on July 5, before coming to a halt again when Transport Canada issued a 48-hour ban on rail traffic on July 9.

From a grain shipping perspective, the fires have occurred during the slowest time of year, but the interruption in service has already had an impact on movement to Vancouver, creating a cascading effect as grain companies pay vessel demurrage and contract penalties while waiting for trains to arrive.

“We’re seeing about 300 cars arriving into Vancouver daily right now. Before the fires, we were seeing 600 to 800 a day going into Vancouver,” explains Greg Northey, vice-president of corporate affairs for Pulse Canada and host of the Grain by Train podcast, in the interview below.

At the same time, the number of empty hopper cars unable to make the return trip east has also ballooned, which will likely result in higher unfulfilled car orders at Prairie elevators in the coming weeks.

With CN appearing to resume operations this week, the big question regarding the impact from the wildfires is: will the backlog be cleared in time for harvest, when demand for rail capacity for grain peaks?

“It’s going to really depend on how quickly CN can get their line up, how quickly they can move through the backlog that exists now to make sure they’re ready and everything’s reset for the grain year, and it’s going to depend on the weather,” says Northey.

The federal transport minister has ordered CN and CP to implement a set of measures to mitigate the risk of fire, which includes operating trains at slower speeds when temperatures and fire risk are high. These measures could potentially also impact new crop grain movement, but it’s unlikely temperatures will reach the same highs in fall.

“It’s really about how the recovery happens now,” says Northey. “If we hit September, when a lot of product comes online, and they’re still clearing out the backlog, it really puts you behind the eight ball as far as service for the rest of the year.”

Of course, the grain supply chain is also paying close attention to the drought on the Prairies, and what it means for rail capacity demand over the coming crop year. It’s critical that everyone in the supply chain is talking with each other, says Northey.

Listen to Greg Northey’s conversation with Shaun Haney, discussing the state of grain transportation, including: the impact of the wildfires in B.C., how the drought affects logistics planning, and U.S. President Biden’s executive order which aims to promote competition in rail and ocean freight:

Related: Railway wildfire prevention measures will extend into grain shipping season

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