Published on: August 30, 2017

How Canada moves its mountains of potash

Laurie Quilichini, General Manager Industrial Rail Services Alberta and BC Region at Cando Rail Services, remembers the first day Cando took over the rail operations at the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PotashCorp)’s mine in Allan, Saskatchewan.

“We stayed extra hours and moved loaded cars out of the way that were blocking the load out,” says Quilichini. “The mine had workers two miles underground that couldn’t work because railcars hadn’t been previously pulled to make room for loading.”

“The very first day we were there we prevented a shutdown of the mine and it hasn’t shut down since.”

Cando provides rail services at six of the 10 potash mines in Saskatchewan — PotashCorp’s Allan and Rocanville mines (Engineering Services), Agrium’s Vanscoy mine and all three of The Mosaic Company mines in the province. Keeping rail cars on track and on time is just one of the ways Cando helps move Canada’s potash to market.

Ryan Yathon is a supervisor for Cando at Mosaic’s mine in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. Mosaic is the world’s largest supplier of potash and phosphate products and recently selected Cando to be its rail service provider at all of its mine sites in Saskatchewan.

The large rail companies are excellent service providers, but their focus is on operating major terminals and handling long haul traffic. Cando focuses on optimizing local operations and offering senior rail expertise that connects customer sites with the Class 1 railways. Together it’s a great partnership that enhances the velocity of moving freight to market.

“The class one railroads sometimes struggle with — what we would call — ‘first-mile service’ to the mines,” says Yathon.

“To smooth things out for Mosaic, we have staff available at Esterhazy 24/7 to ensure that when the empties arrive they get back to the mine in an efficient manner.”

Cando offers a variety of services to industrial customers including industrial switching, transloading, logistics, railcar repair, cleaning and servicing, railcar storage and engineering and track services including track construction, maintenance and inspection. Cando has a close working relationship with both of Canada’s Class 1 railways, Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP), and operates at more than 25 sites across Canada.

In fact, the Class 1 railways trust Cando so much that the company has running rights agreements on CN and CP yards and mainline tracks at various locations across the country, including on CP mainline track from the Esterhazy K1 and K2 mines to Bredenbury, allowing rail operations teams to run trains from the mines out to CP’s serving yard on behalf of Mosaic.

These running rights allow Cando to operate on CN or CP’s track, improving the pace of car movement in and out of work sites, and allowing rail operations to run more efficiently. These agreements reflect the credibility that Cando has built with the Class 1 railways.

Yathon says a big part of Cando’s value is “picking up in the places where people might miss things.” Potash companies like Mosaic know their industry extremely well and operate first class mines, but having rail experts from Cando running their yard helps things run more efficiently.  

“There can be computer glitches every once in a while, so car numbers might be wrong. They’ll sometimes be missing cars, or a car might get double loaded so they are short on another train,” says Yathon. “There’s not as many interruptions in service with us here.”

Yathon and Quilichini have both worked for Class 1 railways in the past, so they know what it’s like to be on the other side of the handoff.

“Every time the wheels stop in the railroad industry, you’re losing efficiency,” says Yathon.

Cando crews often have decades of rail experience. Hiring specialists to run the switching operations at customer sites is a more efficient way of doing things.

Hook and haul is what the Class 1s do after Cando switches the cars into the correct order and on the correct tracks according to where they are going, building full trains or smaller sets of cars depending on the customer’s production demands. The crews also perform safety checks, test the brakes and make sure trains are ready for CN or CP to come along and haul them away. 

“It takes hours to perform these tasks. What we do is a big benefit to the Class 1s,” adds Quilichini.

Yathon says CN used to have two daily road assignments that would come to Esterhazy. On rail, it was a long ride and a lot of work. Since Cando came to Esterhazy and simplified the process, Yathon says the conductors are not spending as much time outside or away from home.

The end result is that the new arrangement works better for the Class 1 providers and better for the customer.

“Now that we’re here, we pull all of the traffic out to the serving yards for CN and CP. They just come and hook and haul,” says Yathon. “For the conductors – the proof is in the pudding.”

Yathon explains that Cando has increased efficiency in the customer yards, which helps the Class 1’s run larger trains in a smaller window of time and with fewer crews.

“We’ve developed a process with CN to be able to run a 205 car train to go to the east coast,” says Yathon. “The only thing they have to do is build the train there. There’s no longer any switching involved for them.”

Over the years, Cando has carved out a strong niche in the potash industry in Canada. In fact, Quilichini says Cando handles about 70 per cent of the potash produced in Canada.

“We’ve certainly shown that we’re the premium supplier of services in the potash industry,” says Quilichini. “There’s no other third party provider that does the amount of switching that we do.”

Cando is the preferred rail service provider in the potash and fertilizer industry, with the rail expertise and safety knowledge to become part of the team at mine sites and work safely and efficiently.