CN flags new rest rules and return of extended interswitching as wild cards for new crop grain movement

Debra Murphy, 2012

Canada’s railways are navigating two notable federal policy changes — new rules regarding downtime for railway workers and the return of extended interswitching — as they prepare to move the 2023 crop from Western Canada to market.

Both CN and CPKC have published their 2023-24 grain plans to mark the start of the 2023-24 crop year, as required by federal legislation. (Read a summary here.)

The new work rest rules, which were first announced in 2020 by then Transport Minister Marc Garneau, took effect for freight rail employees in May. Among the changes, the maximum on-duty period for rail workers has been reduced from 16 hours to 12 hours. Total hours worked in a seven-day period is also capped at 60.

CN is still assessing the impact of the new work-rest requirements, says David Przednowek, CN’s assistant vice president for grain.

“It’s similar to changes with trucking rules with logbooks and limiting the number of hours that an individual can be running…,” he explains, in the interview below. “To move the same amount of traffic, you need hundreds of more people to do the same amount of work based on those changes to those rules. That’s a wild card that we are watching going into the crop year.”

As for extended interswitching, farm groups and grain shippers have welcomed the reintroduction of the policy for an 18-month trial period, with the hope it will increase competition between railways. The measure, which was passed in the federal budget bill in June, gives a shipper that’s served by one railway the ability to seek service from another railway company, up to a distance of 160 km.

CN and CPKC have strongly opposed the move to extended interswtiching, arguing it will reduce rail network velocity and capacity.

The extent to which extended interswitching will negatively impact supply chain capacity will depend on how often it gets used, argues Przednowek. “The way to speed up the supply chain is not to slow it down. The straightest route between two points is A to B directly, not bouncing back and forth between carriers, creating additional workload and chewing up additional resources.”

On one hand, the new labour rules will stretch resources, while on the other, the interswitching changes will create additional work, he says.

Overall, CN says it plans to move up to 7,800 cars or 744 thousand metric tonnes of bulk grain and grain products per week outside of winter, and up to 6,250 cars or 595 thousand tonnes per week during winter. These numbers are unchanged from the railway’s 2022-23 grain plan.

Listen to Przednowek discuss CN’s 2023-24 grain plan and the impact of these federal policy changes, the fallout from the on-again, off-again West Coast port worker strike, the ongoing issues around loading grain in the rain in Vancouver, and more:

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