CN Rail offers a bird's-eye view of current grain movement and winter strategy

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Harvest is well underway across western Canada, and already wrapped up in many areas. The beginning of harvest also signals the start of the grain shipping season.

David Przednowek, assistant vice president for grain for CN Rail, joined RealAgriculture’s Kelvin Heppner to discuss where grain movement is at from a railway perspective. Despite low carry-in, a late harvest for Manitoba, and a mainline washout, the railway is reporting its second best September for grain volume.

At the same time, the Ag Transport Coalition says that both CN Rail and CP Rail are not fulfilling grain car orders as of Week 8 of the shipping year. CN fared better than CP Rail, filling 83 per cent of hopper cars orders. CP Rail only supplied 61 per cent of the hopper cars that were ordered in Week 8 of the grain year, compared with 79 per cent the prior week, and 99 per cent at the same time a year ago,

Check out the summary, following the interview:

SUMMARY:

  • Large bridge south of Grande Prairie, Alta., on the CN Grand Cache Subdivision caught fire
  • It’s too early to determine exactly what the timeline is going to be, but the line leads up to the Grande Prairie area, as a subset of the Peace River region
  • Peace River region roughly produces about two and a half to three million tonnes a year of grain
  • This isn’t the only line into the Peace River region, there are multiple lines serving the region
  • CN experienced a sinkhole situation on the mainline in southern B.C. as well a couple of weeks ago, but the impact of that is still being felt throughout the system
  • The sinkhole was on the last main subdivision until you get into the Port of Vancouver
  • Vancouver is a very critical artery for not only the movement of grain but all kinds of other commodities, it’s the busiest corridor
  • You don’t just snap your fingers the day after an outage occurs and you are able to catch up
  • In week nine they executive 98 per cent of shipments that was requested for that week
  • CN had it’s second best September ever โ€” 2.6 million tonnes. The previous record best was 2.71
  • We came out of old crop with the cupboards pretty much bare
  • Very focused on what they need to do to deliver the grain plan, that is a very busy stretch
  • Harvest has been late on the eastern side of the Prairies
  • Taking a look back to the satellite base Statistics Canada estimates that came out in the middle of September, there was very little change in crop size
  • The estimate is around 75 million tonnes, which is considered a normalized crop
  • In order to take into consideration what the total available supplies are to move, you’ve got to take not only the production, but you’ve got to take in the carry in stocks
  • If you take a look at what Canada’s carry in stocks were on farm, specifically for August of last year, it was 5 million
  • It was a slow start in terms of demand from elevators when looking at some of the year-over-year comparisons when it comes to hopper cars
  • The low point was in week two, where CN had 140,000 tonnes of grain shipment
  • As canola harvest came on in week seven, that’s when things really ramped up
  • They recorded 640-650,000 tonnes in that week seven and eight, with week eight being the outage on the mainline
  • Plan C has been publicized for winter
  • CN says it’s the most comprehensive winter Plan C that has been put out, as it is focused on action and decisiveness
  • It really all gets built around fundamental changes to the approach that CN is taking to running trains
  • Velocity and train speed are two different metrics
  • These velocity numbers from CN haven’t been seen since 2016/2017
  • The focus on scheduling those scheduled trains on time has been big this year
  • They’ve implemented a scheduled train slots program for all of their busiest rail corridors
  • Each corridor can only handle so many trains a day, and there’s only so many trains that can go through the mountains
  • CN has identified a number of locations between Edmonton and Vancouver to strategically stage and hold trains so that when a window comes open, you fill it
  • The winter plan is not just about the movement of grain, but all traffic segments
  • Also in the winter plan there’s a lot of detail specifics around what CN is doing around the operating crew base, the locomotive fleet rolling stock additions, additions to network infrastructure, etc
  • It takes people power, rolling stock, and infrastructure to figure out what total amount of capacity you have
  • CN is adding 57 high horsepower locomotives to the fleet
  • CN has also increased its employee count by 850 people this year

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