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Want to fight climate change? Fix our underperforming rail service

Posted by AFPA | June 15, 2022
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In collaboration with the mayors across Alberta, the AFPA has publicized the following Op-Ed addressing underperforming rail service and the effects on Alberta’s forest industry.

There is plenty of new technology being deployed and developed in the fight against climate change. But one of our most effective climate change tools is 200-year old technology. Our railways offer great potential to take hundreds of thousands of vehicles off the road and make a massive dent in carbon emissions.

But there is a rub. The service needs to be reliable. And right now, our rail service in Canada is abysmal. Several forestry mills are experiencing this poor service firsthand in rural and northern Alberta. They only get 20-30 per cent of the cars they order, cars fail to show up with no explanation, and they are forced to scramble to get product to customers. The result of that scramble is an army of trucks being driven to warehouses, ports, and transload facilities across Western Canada. And with a real shortage of trucking and warehouse space, sometimes the scramble just doesn’t happen and both customers and producers are left high and dry.

From a carbon standpoint, replacing rail with trucks is not the direction we want to go. The Railway Association of Canada estimates that rail is three to four times more carbon-efficient than trucking. A single locomotive can replace upwards of 300 trucks and haul a tonne of goods 210 kilometres on just one litre of fuel.

We are also headed in the wrong direction economically on this one. Isolated rural communities are being disproportionately affected when facilities are forced to cut production because they can’t move the product or get inputs for production processes. These communities are a long way from major centres, but have worked hard to develop stable and diversified economies. Inadequate rail service is severely undermining those efforts.

From a broader perspective, we also need to think about the implications for Canada’s reputation as a reliable supplier. If we can’t get our product to the customer, there are competitors around the world who are poised to steal market share and the jobs that come with it.

So, what’s to be done?

First off, the Government of Canada needs to realize that when it comes to emissions reduction investments, rail infrastructure is great bang for the buck. In fact, it’s the only way to maintain a strong, export-focused economy, while also reducing emissions. Building more track, eliminating bottlenecks, and reducing backlogs at the port will help drive our economy and reduce emissions.

But this funding can’t come without strings. We also need government to demand increased accountability from our rail providers. When companies fail to meet service commitments, there needs to be a mechanism to swiftly rectify the situation and compensate customers. We also need a winter railroading strategy. Every winter, rail service tanks and our economy suffers. In a country with long, cold winters, this is simply not acceptable. We need to demand that railways make the trains run on time, even when it’s cold.

Building railways in Canada was a herculean effort that required societal mobilization. Reducing our carbon footprint and turning the tide on climate change will require the same sort of effort and determination. It’s time to take a practical step by fixing our underperforming rail service.

Jackie Clayton is mayor of Grande Prairie; Kevin Zahara is mayor of Edson; Marcel Michaels is mayor of Hinton; Tyler Warman is mayor of Slave Lake; Tom Pickard is mayor of Whitecourt; Robert Balay is mayor of Athabasca; Jason Krips is president and CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association.

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