Curators of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum in Austin weren't pursuing any particular agenda when they sent out a photo and blurb about an old boxcar they have on display.
But their timing, in the context of the latest storm brewing over grain transportation out here in the West, was impeccable.
Boxcar 119462 was built in 1914 as part of an order of 3,000 Fowler boxcars placed by the CPR with the Canadian Car and Foundry Company.
The Fowler boxcar was a technological marvel for the time. It was the first to incorporate steel into its frame, which greatly improved its durability at a time when the CPR was struggling to keep up with hauling settlers and goods out West and Prairie wheat back East.
Some of those old Fowlers were still in service in the 1970s, and there were lots of updated versions still in use in the 1980s before streamlined hopper cars took over. Loading and unloading those old boxcars was a labour-intensive job; in later years they were tipped on their sides to be emptied and then swept out by hand.
Some would have us believe the grain handling and transportation system back then was horrifically inefficient and expensive. There were too many regulations tying the railway' hands, the system employed far too many people, elevators needed to be knocked down and branch lines had to be scrapped. Otherwise, Canada's reputation as a reliable supplier of Prairie grain to export markets was in jeopardy.
The numbers would suggest the old boxcar days were pretty good.
In the early 1980s, cars were often collected one or two at a time from just under 2,900 elevators situated on branch lines rambling across Western Canada. But at the end of the crop year in July 1984, the terminals at Thunder Bay unloaded 9,672 cars -- many of them cumbersome boxcars -- in one week at the same time Vancouver was unloading another 3,000.
In the last quarter of 2010, average total weekly car unloads at three ports, Thunder Bay, Prince Rupert and Vancouver, was 5,958. Those cars were all easy-to-unload hopper cars managed by computerized traffic and tracking systems, filled at one of the remaining 333 high-throughput elevators and hauled as part of dedicated unit trains.
Back in 1984, the railways operated under legislated freight rates, with farmers and the government paying less than the full cost. Nowadays, farmers pay full commercial rates, although the total revenue the railways can collect is capped. Plus, farmers pay the additional cost of hauling grain longer distance and taxpayers foot the cost of fixing roads now hammered by grain trucks.
CN has been delivering between 70 and 80 per cent of the cars shippers requested this winter. That's stellar compared with CP.
The Western Grain Elevators Association says CP has delivered the cars ordered only 65 per cent of the time since last August. When combined with its performance actually getting the cars in place on time, CP is only performing at the 30 per cent level. In what line of business would those performance levels be acceptable?
"CP service is currently at the lowest level experienced by WGEA members in their collective memory and clearly underscores the need for legislative change," the WGEA release states.
To add insult to injury, CN Rail president and CEO Claude Mongeau came to Winnipeg last month preaching about the need to embrace change and for greater innovation (code for further deregulation).
"One of the first people I reached out to in telling my story is Prime Minister Stephen Harper," Mongeau said. "And they get it. They understand. The government agenda is there with innovation and productivity. I told the prime minister, I said: 'We have to be bold because it's not enough to talk about it, we actually have to do something.' "
How cosy. That might explain why the federal government has been so slow to "do something" about railway shipper pleas to bring more accountability into the system.
Right now, if an elevator manager fails to get a train loaded on time, the company is penalized. But if the railroad is late showing up with the cars, so sad, too bad.
Getting western farm groups to agree on anything is like trying to herd cats. But on this one, the National Farmers Union, Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, the Canadian Wheat Board, the Grain Growers of Canada and Western Grain Elevators Association are singing like a choir.
In short, the grain transportation and handling system has never been more efficient -- at generating profit for the railways -- and its performance has never been worse. And under the current rules, there's not much their captive customers can do about it.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.