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The Manitoba government says it has received personal assurances from the head of CP Rail that the railway will make grain shipments to Thunder Bay a priority.
CP CEO E. Hunter Harrison spoke for 45 minutes via conference call with Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton and Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn on Monday.
Afterwards, the two ministers expressed optimism the railway executive had taken their plea seriously.
"To have the CEO of CP undertake to personally get involved to look at shipping grain through Thunder Bay, I think, is a huge step forward," Ashton said.
Prairie farmers have been complaining for months about being unable to ship much of last year's bumper crop to market. Rail companies say they have been hampered by cold weather.
Manitoba producers, as they are furthest from West Coast ports that operate year-round, have been arguably the hardest hit by the transportation bottlenecks.
Kostyshyn said grain elevators in Manitoba are 112 per cent full -- counting the piles of grain sitting on the ground beside many such facilities. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, elevators are said to be 86 per cent and 89 per cent full, respectively.
There is considerable storage available now at Thunder Bay grain terminals, while the St. Lawrence Seaway remains icebound. The seaway is usually clear of ice by late March, although unusually cold temperatures have pushed the anticipated shipping-season start to early April this year.
Kostyshyn said more than half of Manitoba grain shipments traditionally move east through the seaway, underscoring the need for a big season there this year.
An emergency order earlier this month from the federal government set minimum targets for CP and Canadian National of 11,000 grain cars a week and fines of up to $100,000 a day for failing to meet those targets.
Saskatchewan and Alberta say the minimums should be higher -- 13,000 grain cars a week and a penalty of $250,000 a day. Alberta also says there should be increased railway track access so grain shippers can receive competitive service from more than one rail company.
CP Rail spokesman Ed Greenberg said the company had a "productive call" with the two Manitoba ministers.
"Mr. Harrison has already started the process of addressing Thunder Bay as a priority shipping destination, along with the West Coast," Greenberg said. He emphasized CP has been moving "record amounts of Canadian grain."
One Manitoba farm leader said he was pleased to see the province reach out to the railways. (Manitoba also hopes to hold discussions with CN.)
"These aren't hollow discussions. These are very relevant discussions," said Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney.
He said railways will have to work closely with grain companies to solve the grain-shipping backlog problem.
There are fears on the Prairies a good part of last year's huge crop could still be in farmers' bins by the time the new crop is ready for harvesting.
Some Manitoba farmers are also worried that spring flooding could affect their ability to deliver grain to market when opportunities arise.
-- with files from The Canadian Press