Railway performance has been subpar for several weeks when measured by rail car fulfillment for the grain industry. For Week 29 of the marketing year (mid-February) fulfillment hovered below 45 per cent.
There’s no denying the numbers, but the context of those numbers bears digging in to, says David Przednowek, assistant vice president of grain for CN Rail.
“We were in the midst of extremely challenging winter operating conditions here on the Prairies, you know, between the extreme cold that we’ve been experiencing, as well as the heavy snowfall,” he says. As of Week 29, the Prairies had experienced extreme cold and Manitoba is in the midst of the third snowiest winter on record.
Snow is somewhat manageable for railways, but extreme cold sets back logistics, because of running shorter trains to maintain safe operating conditions. Przednowek explains that at -25 degrees C, railways have to shorten trains to maintain air brake pressure. Shorter trains mean less total movement of goods, but the same number of locomotives and crews moving.
Each day of reduced traffic adds up quickly, he says, but the railways are working through it, especially now that the weather is beginning to warm up.
That said, Przednowek points to what happened well ahead of February — the extreme weather events in B.C.’s lower mainland in November — that left a figurative and literal deep hole the railway has had to dig out of.
“When we lost the mainline to Vancouver for three weeks…people at the time were speculating that it was going to take months to get back into service,” he says. Instead, the railway was running back at limited capacity within weeks, but that three weeks of nearly zero traffic is not something you can just “snap your fingers” and catch up on.
“In the four weeks prior to the disruption, we were moving about 113,000 car loads a week. In that three-week period specific to the disruptions between the middle of November and the end of the first week of December, we were moving just 95,000 car loads a week on the network. When you come out of the disruption, you’re starting to run trains (but) you’re not running full blast, you’ve got sections of track that are still tenuous, you have to be careful running over them, you’re running slower. It was until the third week of December that we had the type of run rate of volume of number of trains running in that corridor that we would have seen prior to the disruptions,” he says.
Przednowek understands that there is frustration out there regarding the level of rail service, but that CN is working very hard to get back to full capacity, especially in the face of the increased pressure on north/south rail demand for feed in to Western Canada.
“We don’t want to be behind. We are committed to working with customers and supply chain partners to get Canadian grain and everything else that wants to get in and out of this country to market,” he says.