On the day before Christmas this year, the statutory Review of the Canada Transportation Act is officially due to be sent to the Minister of Transport. The report of recommendations should be made public in 2016.
“Once it is made public, any special interest or the public can make any comments it wants on the recommendations of the review panel. Shippers and other groups will weigh in,” says Bob Ballantyne, president of the Freight Management Association of Canada.
The terms of reference, according to the federal government, include “provisions of the Act that are relevant to the transportation of grain by rail, and more broadly to the rail-based supply chain for all commodities.” The last statutory Review of the CTA was in 2001.
Due to the backlog in grain deliveries in the 2013-14-crop year, the Review’s mandate includes a special item: the provisions of the Act relevant to the transportation of grain by rail. This look may also spill over into the rail-based supply chain for all commodities, according to the government. The Review will also examine overall capacity and adaptability issues.
The Freight Management Association (FMA) and the Coalition of Rail Shippers (CRS) are among those who have made submissions. One CRS recommendation is to protect and strengthen the Act’s Statutory Obligations, that is, the obligation that railways accept all traffic.
“One of the issues really important to shippers, especially dangerous goods, is the Common Carrier Obligation. I think railroads here and in the US are trying to put limits on what they have to carry,” Ballantyne says.
Another CRS suggestion concerns the need to counterbalance railway market power. This is a perennial issue resulting from the dual monopoly held by the two Class 1 carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.
The FMA’s first recommendation is that the term “suitable and adequate accommodation” in Section 113, referring to the “carriage, unloading and delivering of traffic” be defined as “…a railway company shall fulfill its service obligations in a manner that meets the rail transportation needs as may be reasonably defined by the shipper.”
“We and other shippers’ associations have weighed in on that. Railways won’t like this. This is one that shippers feel fairly strongly about,” Ballantyne says. “It would help balance the buyer-seller relationship.”
The FMA suggests that Transport Canada launch a specific communications program with short-line railways (SLRR) and provincial governments to take advantage of the New Canada Building Fund: Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component-National and Regional Projects. This would alert SLRR operators to the availability of these funds.
Speaking of SLRRs, several items completed or launched this year for and by SLRRs will benefit shippers next year. This March, the Saskatchewan government, under its 50-50 cost-shared Shortline Railway Sustainability Program, which is funded by the Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation, gave a total of $900,000 in grants to 13 Saskatchewan SLRR operators to improve their rail infrastructure. The improvements, which include projects like upgrading track, stabilizing track roadbeds and repairing bridges, will be done this year.
With investments from area farmers, municipalities and communities, Northern Lights Rail purchased a 59-kilometre line from CN this May. The operator of the new SLRR, which runs from Birch Hills to Melfort, notes that it will move grain in producer cars primarily to Thunder Bay, Churchill and into the United States. Shippers can expect savings of $1,000 to $1,500 per loaded producer car, according to Northern Lights Railway president Wayne Bacon.
The Port of Saguenay completed its 7.5-mile rail link and intermodal yard this year, giving shippers to the port more options, and increasing the efficiency and capacity of port operations.
The Vancouver Island Railway is also set to receive as much as $7.5 million under the Building Canada Fund’s major infrastructure component, plus provincial money, for restoration work. This SLRR provides both freight and passenger services.
CN announced $2.7 billion in capital expenditures this year. Track infrastructure spending of $1.4B will improve the network, including $100M for work on northern Alberta branch lines, including heavier rail, crushed rock ballast and new ties.
Growth and productivity initiatives such as yard improvements, intermodal terminals, transload and distribution centres, and information technology will account for $800M of the capex budget, according to CN. The equipment purchasing portion of the capex spending, including 90 new locomotives and rolling stock, will cost $500M.
CN is also spending $20M to add 200 more domestic, 53-foot temperature-controlled containers to its container fleet. This investment will expand its cold supply chain capacity.
CP planned $1.5B spending this year. The projects include yard infrastructure and siding work this year and next. CP postponed new siding projects between Edmonton and Winnipeg, and south into Minnesota, after crude oil prices dropped. CP notes that the planned sidings will likely be made rail-ready so that if crude prices recover, CP can quickly build them.
Shippers should see improved traffic volume on CP’s lines in 2016, says the railway, due to a $20M investment in a train control called CTC that CP will complete this year. “[It] incorporates all [the] latest safety features on forms packages used to issue authorities to personnel working on the track,” according to CP. Its customers should also benefit from savings associated with a lease buyback of railcars. CP also announced it would begin building the K&S spur at Belle Plaine potash mine, to provide it with train service.
This year saw Canada and the US harmonize tank car standards to the TC-117/DOT-117, which will include enhancements such as improved bottom valves to protect against leaks in the case of incidents, head shields and thermal protection, thicker shells and outer jackets. The changeover will take years, and older tanks will be retrofitted or phased out.
In a related vein is another move forward in safety: The Association of American Railroads and its members, including CN and CP, announced the launch of a mobile app for emergency responders called AskRail. With it, emergency responders across the continent will can access real-time information about the content of railcars, view railway emergency contact information, and reference resources to support incident response.
“We know that access to this information can help emergency responders at the outset of an incident to make informed decisions about how to respond to a rail emergency,” says Michael Bourque, president, Railway Association of Canada. “The main objective is that in the case of an incident, they will immediately know what is on the train and respond.
“It is really cool. Because we have all the data for the location of every car, we were able to link that database to the ones that carry dangerous goods and create an app for first responders. Take the number of any tank car and it will tell you where it is, what train it is on, and the content of every car on that train.”
Canadian railways launched the English version of AskRail in mid-2015. Bourque expected that the French version of AskRail would be ready for launch by September. “We’ve gotten excellent feedback,” Bourque adds. “It goes above and beyond any regulatory requirement and it is a really important piece of the puzzle. The rail customers who have dangerous goods are happy that we are doing this.”