A burning Alberta bridge halts grain shipments in Canada | So Good News


“An entire economy depends on these little steel bands through Canada”

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Greg Sears was to deliver 90 tonnes of his canola crop to a grain elevator near Grande Prairie, Alta., about 500 kilometers northwest of Edmonton, on October 6. But before he left his farm, a local representative at Viterra Canada Inc., a major grain exporter, called and asked him to wait, probably for several weeks.

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“That’s $75,000 to $100,000 of product that I’m not going to get a check for anytime soon,” Sears said.

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About 24 hours earlier, a bridge burned down on the Canadian National Railway Co. line, about 95 kilometers to the south, cutting the only rail connection in or out of Grande Prairie and causing backlogs for grain shippers who rely on that track to get their product to port.

CN said the severed line only moves a fraction of the total grain coming from the fields of Western Canada. But for grain farmers and exporters, the bridge fire was yet another example of the fragility of the national supply lines that connect one of the world’s most important breadbaskets to ports and global markets.

“An entire economy depends on these little steel bands through Canada,” said Sears, who serves as chairman of the Alberta Wheat Commission, a farm lobby group. “A bridge washout or fire or any type of event can cause some major impacts.”

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CN has already angered exporters this season for making excuses about its inability to meet all the demand for grain tankers during one of the most anticipated harvests in recent memory.

A Canadian National Railway Inc. locomotive pulls a train in Montreal, Que.
A CN locomotive pulls a train in Montreal. Photo by Christine Muschi/Bloomberg files

In an email to customers, the railroad said it will be “at least a week” before trains resume running on the line affected by the Bride Fire, which stretches from around Jasper National Park north to Grande Prairie.

David Przednowek, who heads CN’s grain unit, said the Grande Prairie line is one of two serving the broader Peace River region of northwestern Alberta. And the entire region represents about three million tonnes of a total average annual crop of 75 million tonnes harvested in Western Canada, Przednowek said.

“That’s how you have to think about the overall scale,” Przednowek said. Still, he acknowledged that for farmers in and around Grande Prairie, it is “a very consequential” event. “We are working as fast as we can,” he said.

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The farm that Sears operates, near Sexsmith, Alta., 9 miles or so north of Grande Prairie, has just finished harvesting canola, wheat, barley and field peas. He has to pay bills for that harvest, and start buying fertilizer and other inputs for next year. But he hasn’t had any cash flow for months because he sold the last of his previous crop back in June.

“This is definitely not a great time for a rail breach,” Sears said. “For most farmers, that’s when your bank account is at its lowest.”

For most farmers, that’s when your bank account is at its lowest

Greg Sears

Pressure has mounted in Ottawa for the government to coordinate an overhaul of the national transportation and supply infrastructure after major disruptions over the past year, including extreme flooding in British Columbia last fall that effectively cut off West Coast ports from the rest of the country. Canada.

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“The system buckles. Every couple of years it buckles,” Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, told the House of Commons agriculture committee last week. “You end up with these tiny, umbilical cords between the prairies and world markets,” continued he. “All food production in this area the size of Europe goes through, essentially, a small number of railway lines through a couple of passes.”

Przednowek, CN’s assistant vice president of grain, said some of these disruptions are inevitable.

“The CN network is a total of 19,000 miles. It’s an outdoor sport,” he said, “and there are factors beyond anyone’s individual control that will impact the supply chain. All of these cannot be eliminated.”

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On Thursday, a federal task force released a report warning that the supply chain is reaching “a breaking point.”

The National Supply Chain Task Force, a panel of leaders and experts assembled by the federal government earlier this year, found that Canada’s patchwork of ports, railways, warehouses, cargo terminals and airports is so interconnected that the “smallest problem” can reverberate across the country. system, said Louise Yako, a logistics industry veteran who co-chaired the task force.

“This report is an urgent call,” Yako said at a news conference.

Yako and her colleagues settled on a list of 21 actions that must be taken “before our country’s reputation as a reliable trading partner is further tarnished,” their report said.

And the big changes won’t happen without government intervention, the report said, because Canada’s supply chain is made up of private operators all trying to “optimize their own operations without considering their impact on others in the supply chain.”

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