Friday August 29, 2014

Rail woes multi-faceted problem

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If there is one issue weighing heavily on Prairie farmers this winter, even more than the unseasonably cold weather, it is the inability of the rail system to deal with a record harvest of grain to port for export.

The situation is one where most farmers, and even governments are pointing fingers at the rail companies.

But as is the case in most things, that is an over simplification in terms of assigning blame.

The federal government should stand up and take its share.

There are supposed to be rules set into the regulatory system surrounding rail service which should be sufficient to have the rail companies doing a better job of things.

But federal regulation over the years have been largely lip service to farmers, with the government having little appetite to reprimand the big two rail lines. The result is the government has become basically a toothless watchdog.

But I am not sure any amount of government influence might have imparted on the situation, farmers have to recognize the system is under what has to be thought of as extraordinary pressures.

While recognizing many will disagree with this, I might suggest the system is suffering this crop year from having to adjust away from the single-desk selling system of the former Canadian Wheat Board.

Whether you viewed the CWB as deeply flawed, or a lost benefit, it did offer some order in terms of grain deliveries, sales, and the transportation needed to connect the two.

And then while the rail companies must take the bulk of the blame, as it is apparent they long ago decided there were greater profit in handling commodities other than grain, it might be unfair to expect them to smoothly handle what is a record crop.

I am reminded that on July 1, 2010, a storm hit Saskatchewan which caused significant flooding in many areas. Yorkton was hit with what officials terms a one-in-100-year storm event. It caused millions in damages, closing many businesses and destroying several homes.

After the crisis the local government assessed the drainage system in Yorkton and found it lacking. They have since invested significant dollars in new storm water retention ponds and ditching, to better safeguard the city against deluges of rain.

But even with the improved system the system is not designed to handle a one-in-10-year storm.

And the rail system is never going to be designed to completely handle a record-setting crop. To have such capacity would mean most years there would be poorly utilized equipment in average crop years.

Certainly the rail system should be doing better than it is, but to point the finger of blame in this case is not to point at a singular target.

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