Who is screwing whom on CN?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, September 24, 2019

You are perhaps used to my tales of riding the Canadian across the mountains, prairies and forests, and all the indignities that Canadian National Railway inflicts upon VIA Rail’s flagship. This time I decided upon a different approach. I flew to Winnipeg, rented a car and drove west 500-plus miles across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Aboard the Canadian, it seems like chaos out there. Is this really the case? What I discovered may surprise you. But first, the highlight of my day today.

I began this morning in Rivers, Manitoba., a crew-change point midway between Winnipeg and Melville, Sask. Most of the way to Melville was over gravel roads. I’m about 30 miles east of Melville when what should run across the road directly in front of my SUV but a rather big—and fast—black bear. Not so close that I that had to floor the brakes and skid into the ditch, but almost. Who wudda thunk you’d see black bears on the Saskatchewan prairies? Not me. I am still marveling at this chance encounter. I wonder whether the bear remembers me as vividly. I doubt it. If you’ve never seen a bear, they are critters.

Back to the subject at hand: It’s hard to overstate how much traffic Canadian National Railway is running across the prairies, west of Winnipeg—more than 30 scheduled trains a day, intermodal and mixed freight, plus easily a dozen crude oil, grain and potash unit trains. And of course the twice-weekly Canadian each way. This pushes the limit of what a single main track can handle. CN is adding 10 to 20 miles of double track annually between Saskatoon and Winnipeg, particularly in the Saskatoon-Melville segment. But as fast as CN ups capacity, its business increases to absorb it. I saw two loaded eastbound crude oil trains today that didn’t exist a year ago, plus a new intermodal schedule.

So what does this add up to? CN’s critics are fond of saying how it skewers the Canadian. I would argue just about everything is getting skewered, too. The train counts obscure another critical factor in getting traffic over the road, and that is train size and horsepower to move it. CN trains are huge, typically 9,000 feet but often 12,000 and even 14,000. Moreover, the railroad assigns roughly 1 horsepower per ton (if that), which is enough to get the elephants moving across the prairies but never very fast. If anything but an empty train is doing more than 45 mph, you should be shocked. And because of long, underpowered trains, stops are slower, starts are slower and it takes longer to clear the main track onto a siding and then to reenter it. If I’m causing you to think railroad sclerosis, then you get my point.

No better example exists of how this all works out than the fate of three westbound trains that left Rivers this morning about the time I did. They were (in this order) 119 (intermodal, Chicago to Roberts Bank, B.C.), 731 (empty potash cars) and 315 (mixed freight, Winnipeg to Edmonton, Alta.). Train 119 left Rivers about 6:20 a.m., 731 half an hour later and 315 a short time after that.

Driving slowly on gravel roads at early light, I still beat the lead train, intermodal 119, to St. Lazare, Manitoba, 61 miles down the pike. At Melville, another 76 miles to the west, a CN employee told me that 119 was at least an hour away. That was at 11 a.m.

So this is how it all worked out for those three Canadian National trains: I drove another 160 miles west of Melville, to within 30 miles of Saskatoon, and then turned around and went 160 miles back to Melville. When I had driven 300 miles in all, I encountered train 731, then 119 and finally 315, itself just leaving Melville at 6:30 p.m. To put this another way, all three trains consumed close to 12 hours getting from Rivers to Melville. For whatever reason, train 731 ended up in front of train 119. In the interim, all three were passed by a fourth westbound, intermodal hotshot 115 with a bevy of domestic Canadian containers behind it. But still, twelve hours? It causes you to wonder if CN sends its conductors in front of its trains for 100 miles, lighting backpacks of fusees as they trod along.

It’s not just the Canadian getting screwed. That’s my point.

Tomorrow’s mission is simply this: Start west at first light from Melville until I intercept VIA Rail number 2, and then reverse course and chase the eastbound Canadian as best I can for as long as I can. Let’s see if it gets a better shake than Canadian National’s own trains. Even if it does, that won’t say a lot, will it?

Oh yes, one last thing. To guard against the Frailey Effect—when a railroad knows I’m around, it sometimes behaves differently—I’ll not upload this blog until tomorrow’s little adventure.—Fred W. Frailey

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