Inside a CN meltdown

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, March 25, 2018

The chief executive of Canadian National Railway is reported to have lost his job over scenes such as I witnessed today, Canadian National was growing, but its ability to handle that growth fell behind across the Canadian prairies—too few tracks, too few people, or maybe poor management of both. In any event, what ensued this winter was a meltdown. And not one meltdown, but an unending series that simply sapped the railroad of its resources, and its vitality.

Maybe you think I exaaggerate. Let me describe this morning’s events. At 6:45, VIA Rail’s Canadian eases into the siding in Chauvin, Alta., and comes to a stop. The reason is that the next station, Artlund, has M313 on the main line and M318 on the siding, and the working time of both crews has run out. Nothing can get past. The RTC (rail traffic controller) in Edmonton has ordered a new crew from Biggar, Sask., for M313, but it will be at least two hours arriving, and there’s no relief crew to call for M318. That’s because the entire eastern half of the Wainwright Subdivision, which extends 265 miles from Edmonton to Biggar, looks a lot like Artlund. Every single siding holds a train, and most of those trains lack a crew.

A bit after 9 o’clock, the radio cackles and M313 announces it is ready to leave Artlund. Fifteen minutes later it trundles by, a collection of grain and tank cars. M313 is followed. by intermodal trains Q191,and Q119, which had come up behind it at Artlund. Finally, after 190 minutes, the Canadian leaves Chauvin.

Then comes the revelation. From there to Saskatoon, 162 miles, every siding you pass but one will hold a train, and half of them will be awaiting a new crew. We stop to pick up the outlawed engineers and conductors of M318 at Artlund, Q186 at Yonker, and another edition of M318 at Vera, Alta. Across the provincial line in Saskatchewan, Q106 sits crewless at Unity, and M316 is deserted on the main line between the switches at Tako, causing every train to snake around it. Q101 is waiting for VIA at Scott, Q199 at Cavell, and M408 at Biggar, where all trains swap crews. Leaving Biggar, our new engineer announces we’ll run nonstop to Saskatoon, the reason being all sidings are full the next 46 miles—865 sitting at Neola, Q115 at Leney, M313 at Juanita, and Q111 at Farley West on Saskatoon’s western outskirt.

The mess I’ve described seems to recur daily this winter somewhere between Edmonton and Winnipeg, Man.

The meltdowns have many mothers. Business, of course, is booming, and I hesitate to blame CN for failing in the fickle art of traffic forecasts. Winter was brutal, but winter in Canada is always brutal, which Montreal seems to have forgotten. I read between the lines of the railroad’s press releases that in the urge to surprise Wall Street on the up side, capacity expansions between Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Chicago were scaled back and resiliency was stripped from the crew base, as if the number of people needed to move trains remains the same in February as it does in August. To top matters off, Canadian National has had a real bad run of luck these last few days. Locomotives fail, drawbars pull apart, knuckles break. Each instance easily delays a dozen or more trains, some of which need recrewing between terminals. But of course there are too few rested crews to send into the bushes to rescue these trains—hence, meltdown du jours such as I witnessed this morning.

You probably wonder how my eastward Canadian survived these events. After that 190-minute wait at Chauvin, we seemed to float above it. What with the sidings being full, about all the RTC could do was send us on our way. We’re now an hour out of Melville in eastern Saskchewan, roughly four hours late, which is as good as it gets in this part of the world for VIA’s flagship.—Fred W. Frailey

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