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Prairie farm groups want meeting with federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt

EDMONTON - Prairie farm groups frustrated with an ongoing railway grain backlog want federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to intervene to help get their crops to market.

The groups say they wrote to Raitt last month seeking a meeting with her in Ottawa for the last week in February, but she has not responded.

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, says farmers want to know why Ottawa can't get railways to ship more of the bumper crop to port for export to customers around the world.

"The transport minister has to get involved in this," he said Tuesday.

"This is a crisis situation and something has to be done. It affects not only the agriculture community but the whole economy in Western Canada."

The federal government is aware that grain farmers have been watching the quality and value of their crops decline over the last few months in fields or in storage because of the transportation bottleneck.

Agricultural groups say they warned Ottawa about the potential of the backlog months ago and haven't been shy about lobbying for change.

Doug Chorney, president of Manitoba's Keystone Agricultural Producers, recently wrote an opinion article that has been published in some Prairie newspapers that calls on Ottawa to take action sooner rather than later to fix the bottleneck.

The article lays the blame on "abysmal service" by Canada's two major railways.

It says the monopoly Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) and Canadian National Railway (TSX:CNR) have in the marketplace allows them to provide inadequate service without fear of consequences.

"We need short-term intervention by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and the federal government because farmers need to get their crops to market as soon as possible before more sales are lost," wrote Chorney, who farms near East Selkirk, Man.

"This is not a once-in-a lifetime situation. Instead, it will be the norm in a few years. Will we wait until then to fix our rail system, or will we begin to do it now?"

Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said his group wants to tell Raitt face to face that the Fair Rail Freight Service Act passed by the Conservative government last year isn't working and should be amended.

Transport Canada says the law provides incentives for grain companies and railways to voluntarily negotiate shipping service agreements.

Hall said to his knowledge no grain shipping companies have signed contracts with the railways.

"Put some responsibility on the railroads," Hall said. "If there is inaction by the railroads, there need to be penalties."

Officials with Transport Canada were not immediately available for comment.

In November, the department said the fall harvest was a record for Western Canada and was putting significant pressure on the region's grain handling and transportation.

On Monday, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced that Ottawa plans to keep closer tabs on rail companies by requiring them to report monthly on their performance instead of every three months.

The federal government is also spending $1.5 million for a five-year transportation study.

Hall said action is needed this year or the problem could continue next fall and into the future.

"We can't wait that long. We could have the same glut of grain on the Prairies next year."

The Canadian Press

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