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Large freight volumes and extreme cold weather combined to slow railway traffic during the winter of 2013-14.Stephen C. Host/The Canadian Press

Railways and producers of commodities that move by ship and train are bracing for winter, one that promises to be less harsh than last year's.

David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, said the preliminary winter forecast for most of Canada is that it will be milder than normal. The exception is in the Great Lakes, southern parts of the Prairies, Quebec and Ontario – heavily populated areas that are in for a "normal" winter.

The winter of 2013-14 will be remembered as long and cold. It will also be remembered by North American railways as the year large freight volumes and extreme cold combined to slow traffic to a crawl and sparked a battle with farmers, shippers and governments in Canada and the United States that left rail companies saddled with new government oversight.

The harsh winter also delayed the reopening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an important trade route that connects the factories and farms in the heart of North America with the Atlantic Ocean and ports around the world. Shipments through the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence soared in October as steel mills and grain companies raced to stockpile commodities and get their goods to market before the seaway closes in late December.

"After losing sailing days due to ice at the start of the season and with only two months left in the season, ships are working flat out to deliver for North American businesses and consumers. This frantic pace is necessary from now all the way to the end of December to make up for lost time," said Stephen Brooks, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

The Great Lakes' ice cover was the most extensive in 35 years over the winter, and Lake Superior iced right over, which is a rare occurrence. Mr. Phillips said one lasting effect of the past winter is that the water temperatures in the five Great Lakes is colder than normal, "but that doesn't mean it's going to freeze up like it did last year."

Perhaps the surest sign winter-readiness is paramount is that road salt shipments on the seaway are up by 34 per cent this season as North American mines work to replenish tapped-out municipal reserves. The seaway is also carrying salt imported from overseas, said Bruce Hodgson, director of market development at St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.

For railways, winter drives up expenses for fuel, labour, repair and maintenance as equipment failures become more likely.

"The fundamental rail technologies are steel wheels on steel rails, a common air brake system, locomotive and long trains and heavy cars. Beyond a certain tipping point – around minus 25 degrees Celsius – these technologies are affected by cold weather," said Mark Hallman, a spokesman for Canadian National Railway Co., which operates 33,000 kilometres of track in North America.

Cold and snow can clog track switches and reduce pressure in air brakes, forcing railways to run shorter trains at slower speeds to ensure they can stop safely. Ahead of this winter, CN said it is adding more cars with remote-controlled braking systems to supplement the locomotive brakes, and using engines in the middle or end of a train to improve braking safety on long trains.

Montreal-based CN expects to have 60 new locomotives on the rails by winter, and has spent more than $110-million upgrading its busy Edmonton-Chicago corridor, adding second tracks in some areas and alternate Prairie routes that can serve as relief lines to avoid congestion.

To meet rising traffic volumes ahead of winter, CN has hired 3,500 people this year, but is warning customers winter could mean longer waits.

"Extreme winter weather is a challenge for railways. CN has geared up for winter operations and will continue to work closely with its customers to manage the challenges in the most efficient ways possible," Mr. Hallman said.

A spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. said he would not provide details of the railway's winter plan until it was given to Transport Canada on Nov. 13.

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