If you have a chance to follow Ralph Goodale (@ralphgoodale on Twitter), you’ll get to enjoy his weekly updates and blogs. Ralph has a passion for all things Canada – and particularly Western Canadian and Saskatchewan issues.
For many years Ralph has been championing the plight of Canadian farmers who just want a fair shake when it comes to transportation and global trade.
Here is his latest blog post:
RALPH GOODALE’S REPORT
A commentary by the Member of Parliament for Wascana
March 17th, 2014
FARMERS DESERVE AN HONEST & LEVEL PLAYING-FIELD
Fifteen hundred rural reeves and councillors from across Saskatchewan held their annual meeting in Regina last week. No topic was hotter than grain handling and transportation.
Transport Minister Raitt and Agriculture Minister Ritz were in attendance. They could not sugarcoat the obvious – the grain logistics system designed and implemented over the last two years by the Harper government is a hopeless failure. Shipments are running months behind. From top to bottom, it’s an uncoordinated, non-transparent, chaotic mess. Costs and losses are totalling billions of dollars.
The best the feds could forecast is another six months of hard slogging before last year’s backlog can be cleared. That means the much-publicized “order” that the government gave the railways on March 7th “to get to work on grain” is pretty much meaningless. They’re not being required to do anything more than what would have been “business-as-usual” in the spring in any event.
The Conservatives also had to concede that their so-called “Fair Rail Freight Service Act” last year (Bill C-52) has been completely useless. It was supposed to give shippers some leverage to negotiate commercial “service level agreements” with the railways, but not a single agreement has been signed. Such failure was exactly what we predicted when Conservative MPs were whipped into blocking all amendments that would have put some teeth in that faulty legislation.
Meanwhile last week, in New York City, the CEO of CP Rail (Hunter Harrison) was again giving prairie farmers the back of his hand. He claimed the disaster in grain transportation was only a “modest” problem. He said he was “irate” about being criticized for poor performance. Instead of hobnobbing with the rich-and-famous on Wall Street, it would have been interesting to see how CP’s boss would have fared at that municipal convention in Regina.
But Harrison at least cleared up one key point in his New York remarks. He confirmed that some rail cargo has been getting preferential treatment this winter – e.g., “intermodal” traffic, where there are competitive forces at play. He says he’s “sensitive” to that. But for grain, there’s no sensitivity because there’s no competition and the railways will get to haul it all eventually anyway (with no financial consequences for being delinquent).
The Harper Conservatives are once again promising to get tough with the railways in new legislation to be introduced in Parliament on March 24th. If they are serious, here are four things to look for:
1. The creation of a credible and completely independent monitoring agency to measure, analyze and report publicly on the performance of the western grain marketing, transportation and handling system. Transparency is essential. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
2. A full “costing review” to track all costs and revenues associated with moving grain, the achievement of efficiency gains in the system, and how those gains are shared (or not) among railways, grain companies and farmers. The last such review was 22 years ago in 1992.
3. Amendments to the government’s defective Bill C-52 to provide a clear definition of what “service levels” the railways should be expected to deliver, how performance is to be measured, and what damages are payable to farmers when the railways fail.
4. A method of coordinating grain handling and transportation logistics. Right now, there’s no quarter-back calling the plays or directing traffic. It’s a free-for-all, with the railways’ duopoly and the grain companies’ oligopoly in charge. They look out for themselves quite nicely, but farmers are held captive with no competitive alternatives and no legal remedies to fight back.