A severe shortage of rail cars is keeping millions of tonnes of in-demand grain trapped in the country’s prairies say grain farmers. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Western grain farmers push for legislative fix to railway bottleneck

OTTAWA — Billions of dollars are at stake if Canada doesn’t deal quickly with a severe shortage of rail cars that is keeping millions of tonnes of in-demand grain trapped in the country’s prairies, grain farmers say.

Government inaction could mean serious hardship for farm families that are unable to get their stockpiled grain to market and raise the money needed to pay off last year’s input loans, Ron Bonnett, head of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said Thursday.

Those unpaid loans restrict farmers from accessing new loans needed to prepare for the coming season, he added.

“This is a human story,” Bonnett said. “We need a plan.”

As planting season approaches, industry representatives were in Ottawa warning that a lack of action could plunge the country into a grain crisis as serious as in 2013-14, which they say cost the economy $8 billion.

An Ag Transport Coalition report released late last month found Canada’s largest railways supplied only 38 per cent of the grain cars requested by producers on time over a week-long period in mid-February.

The report pegged Canadian National’s performance over that period at 17 per cent — marking a sixth consecutive week of declines.

Proposed legislation, Bill C-49, would give the government the tools to address the problem, but those measures are tied to separate provisions around a new air passenger bill of rights — which has raised concerns in the Senate, where the bill has stalled.

Agricultural Minister Lawrence MacAulay says he and Transport Minister Marc Garneau are urging the Senate to pass the bill.

But for Dan Mazier, who heads Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers, the buck stops on Garneau’s desk. The transport minister has repeatedly refused to split the bill’s sections in order to let the rail provisions pass more quickly.

The grain crisis four years ago saw the then-Conservative government order the biggest rail lines to double the amount of grain being moved or face penalties as high as $100,000 a week.

On Thursday, Opposition MPs pushed the government to act before the House of Commons begins a two-week break next week,

John Barlow, a Conservative agriculture critic, called the rail car backlog a crisis.

“If we wait any longer, it’s going to be much too late for our producers to get their goods to market,” he told reporters.

Barlow was flanked by NDP MP Alistair MacGregor, who echoed his colleague’s call for urgent action.

“This is an issue that is of the utmost seriousness and it demands action across party lines,” he said.

Saskatchewan MP Randy Hoback, a former chair of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, highlighted the cost to farmers of rail delays forcing ships to wait in harbour, which adds up to thousands of dollars a day.

“You’ve got grain in the bins. You’ve got consumers wanting that grain. You’ve got ships sitting in harbour. And the only thing holding you up is rail.”

Kate Fenske, a spokeswoman for CN Rail, said in an email that “challenging conditions” are to blame for the company’s performance.

“As weather continues to improve, so is our network fluidity,” she said.

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