Canada Markets

Rail Blockades Costly for Agriculture

Cliff Jamieson
By  Cliff Jamieson , Canadian Grains Analyst
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The blue bars show the weekly number of cars rationed or cancelled by CN Rail this crop year, increasing each week for six consecutive weeks as of week 27, measured against the primary vertical axis. The black line represents the cumulative CN cars cancelled, measured against the secondary vertical axis. (DTN graphic by Cliff Jamieson)

The list of effects of the recent rail blockades across Canada continues to grow. Eastern Canada is facing propane shortages needed to meet heating requirements. Saskatchewan is waiting for critical deliveries of chlorine needed for treating town water supplies. Morning reports indicate that eastern flour millers, the largest in the country, are facing a shortage of western wheat.

While the blockades are viewed as illegal by all levels of government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there is no quick fix and "we are not a country where politicians can order the police to do something, we are a country that has confidence in its police forces and allows them to do their work in scope of these blockades."

Former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall asked, "Is Canada governable or not?" in a morning social media post. Canadians in general are questioning the two-tiered application of laws in the country and questioning why force is not used to end illegal activity.

Costs to the agriculture industry are quickly growing. The Grain Monitoring Program's Weekly Performance Update shows the vessel lineup for Vancouver increasing to 39 vessels, up 95% from one year ago, while the Prince Rupert lineup is at eight vessels, up 60% from a year ago.

Meanwhile, loads on wheels reported by the AG Transport Coalition Daily Pipeline Status is reported at 10,911 cars, 3% below the average of the previous 30 days. The number of cars rated as not moving is shown at 5,466 which is 29% above the previous 30-day moving average, with a warning that this number is set to grow larger.

Perhaps another measure of even greater consequence is the number of cars rationed, or cancelled. As seen by the blue bars on the attached chart, CN cancelled a substantial number of hopper cars in week 17 during the eight-day CN strike.

Moving forward, the number of CN cars cancelled on a weekly basis has increased each week for six consecutive weeks, from seven cars in week 23 to the latest tally of 1,700 in week 27.

As seen by the black line on the chart, which represents the cumulative number of CN cars cancelled at 10,361 cars. This compares to a total of 32 cars cancelled by CP Rail in the first 27 weeks of this crop year, which fail to register on this chart. It also compares to the 2,508 cars reported for 2018-19 and the three-year average of 6,235.

Two points can be made -- this trend is not over, while catching up will be difficult, if not impossible. The coalition's daily report points to the likelihood of further cancellations for the current shipping week (week 28), while expected to continue into week 29.

As well, as indicated by Tom Steve of the Alberta Wheat Commission on the radio today, the industry has limited ability to catch up, including limited track, limited equipment and limited staff; surge capacity simply does not exist. The 10,361 cars cancelled represents the possibility of roughly 900,000 mt in shipping, while the situation continues to grow.

While issues in agriculture often face challenges getting on to the radar, the reported lack of movement for propane for heating purposes, a lack of chlorine movement which is reported to have certain major cities nearing a boil-water advisory, major flour millers facing potential challenges keeping their production lines going and VIA Rail disruptions will affect urban dwellers to the point that it will soon force leaders to show leadership.


DTN 360 Poll

This week's poll asks what you think of the federal government's order restricting the speed of rail traffic hauling dangerous goods. You can weigh in with your thoughts in this poll, found on the lower right side of your DTN Canada Home Page.

Cliff Jamieson can be reached at

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