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CN adding power, equipment and crews to prep for winter

Canadian railway’s plan fulfills government’s requirement for operational blueprint

CN released its winter plan. (Photo: Shutterstock/sockagphoto)

CN will deploy additional power and equipment to ensure rail operations continue smoothly through the winter, the Canadian railway said in its 2022-23 winter plan released this week.

Both CN (NYSE: CNI) and Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) are required by the Canadian government to detail how they expect to handle operations amid the extreme cold, heavy snowfall and sometimes heavy rainfall that can occur from November through March. 

“Winter is when demand from all commodity sectors is often at or near its peak, but also a time when rail system capacity can be reduced by poor operating conditions caused by extreme weather,” CN said in its winter plan. The grain harvest season is still in full swing, plus other commodities such as fertilizer and energy products need to head to the ports for export.

Part of the challenge of operating in winter is because a train might have to travel through multiple weather scenarios when getting from point A to point B, CN explained. 

“The challenges of winter and its effects on rail transportation are deeply integrated into CN’s 

operations and planning activities,” CN said in the plan’s executive summary. “The variety and  severity of weather conditions, for example, that an intermodal train will experience transiting from the West Coast of Canada to Eastern Canada can be expected to change markedly within the trip. The weather conditions that the same scheduled intermodal train will experience on the next trip are likely to be completely different.”

For the winter months, CN expects to add 57 high-horsepower units to its locomotive fleet, bringing the fleet’s total to 1,950 high- and mid-horsepower locomotives. CN has also acquired 800 new high-capacity boxcars and 500 high-efficiency hopper cars that will be delivered in early 2023.

CN also expects to graduate 500 new conductors through the end of 2022, and those conductors plus other hiring efforts will expand CN’s operating crew base, the railway said. 

Other winter preparation efforts include keeping in close contact with customers, continuing to deploy technologies such as autonomous track inspection, wayside detectors and broken wheel detectors, and deploying snow and ice removal equipment at key locations.

“In addition to the fluidity of the rail network, CN is constantly monitoring the relative performance of activities at customer production facilities and export terminals,” CN said. “CN operates within an end‑to‑end supply chain with many moving parts, and what’s happening at origin and destination has a real impact on overall supply chain performance. CN and its customers collaborate and adjust when there are issues because, by working together, we can ensure the system is performing to its full potential.”

An example of working with customers is offering transload solutions for propane and increasing the number of car spots to handle and offload propane during the peak winter season, CN said. Another is working with shippers and receivers to pre-position inventory at strategic locations before winter arrives as well as work with shortline partners to facilitate the movement of forest products. 

CN’s full winter plan is available here

In addition to explaining how the railway will adjust operations in the winter, CN asked Transport Canada to revisit train brake rules since the technology has evolved. Specifically, the railway is asking for an exemption to the rules based on CN’s testing of its brake technology. CN also said that while changes in the rules regarding winter train speeds allow for more flexibility, the railway is still concerned that speed reductions would have the effect of slowing all trains on the network. 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.