CALGARY, Alta. – The effect of the current CN Rail strike could have both positive and negative impacts on the trucking industry in Western Canada when it comes to the movement of grain products like wheat, barley, and canola.
Though trucking and rail can often be competing modes of transportation, Howard August, executive vice-president of Canadian operations for KAG Canada, said the two work more in tandem when it comes to hauling grain.
“We cannot compete with rail’s ability to move large volumes of grain long distances,” said August. “We, of course, are not restricted by rail tracks, so our strength is the shorter distance moves.”
August said his trucking business will be impacted by a prolonged CN Rail strike – now in its fourth day – when the plants they haul into fill up but have no ability to move the product to the end user.
“We will take advantage of some longer haul ‘must have’ deliveries, such as feed mills,” said August, “but for the most part, our grain division will operate as normal until the elevators are full.”
August said KAG, which includes Westcan Bulk Transport, a service group for KAG and one of the largest bulk commodity haulers in Canada, will need to ensure they have the resources to accommodate longer distances for road transport should the strike linger over an extended period of time. Such an effort would include the need for drivers to be flexible with their shifts and time on the road. The correct allocation of equipment would also be a factor to account for longer distances being traveled.
Tom Steve, general manger of the both the Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley Commissions, said it’s not as easy as simply bringing in more trucks to move grain during a halt to rail activity.
“There’s a limit to that because the grain that’s moving by rail is moving from the Prairies to Vancouver or Prince Rupert to the west, or to the east to Thunder Bay through the St. Lawrence Seaway, and it would be impractical to move that grain by truck,” said Steve. “Rail is the reality.”
Steve said there are a tremendous number of trucks involved in the movement of grains in Western Canada, but to just flip the switch from rail to trucks would be difficult to do in a short timeframe.
The main reason it would be impractical to have trucks take over for rail is that they cannot match the capacity of a train without employing a large number of trucks.
“The average hopper car holds 100 tons of product, so you’re talking 10,000 tons of grain in a single unit train,” said Steve, adding that a b-train would equate to about half of a hopper car. “To put that many trucks on the highway between (Calgary) and Vancouver would be impractical.”
Grain producers rely on trucks to get their product from farms to inland destinations. And as Steve pointed out, there is also a lot of truck traffic that heads south into the U.S., which in the event of a lengthy rail strike could increase to compensate.
“If we had an extended rail disruption, you would see an increase in truck traffic going into Montana and North Dakota that might otherwise move by rail,” said Steve, as the distances traveled are shorter than to western ports in B.C.
Cost is also a factor in the movement of grain. Having to move large volumes that can be hauled by rail would be expensive at the same capacity by truck.
“Trucking is much more efficient on the short hauls of 100 to 200 kilometers than rail because we don’t have the track capacity to service that,” said Steve. “That’s where the trucking industry really shines, is the domestic hauls.”
Steve also said the trucking industry is a critical supply chain for Southern Alberta, where rail connections cannot meet demand.
August added that trucking has the benefit of being more flexible than rail, and can provide single or multiple truck schedules depending on the volume of freight that needs to be shipped.
“We are somewhat restricted by distance but have the flexibility to work with (customers) to come up with a solution that may involve less than conventional delivery locations or markets,” he said.
Chris Nash, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, said it’s difficult to determine how the rail strike will impact trucking.
“There is potential for long-haul commercial transportation to benefit in order to keep product moving,” said Nash, “but short-haul trucking may see a decline regarding companies providing drayage.”
CN Rail workers numbering over 3,000 hit picket lines Nov. 19. The Teamsters, the union representing those workers, are attempting to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. The union says long work hours have negatively impacted safety, and employees should be given more time off and not be forced to work extended hours.
“Fatigue has been recognized by the Transportation Safety Board as a major safety problem in this industry. Too many railroaders are operating trains when they should be resting,” said the president of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, Lyndon Isaak. “For the safety of all Canadians, we cannot allow CN to make it even harder for our members to get the rest they need.”
August said it is unfortunate the two sides had not worked out an agreement prior to the deadline.
“The loss of this rail service has a big impact on many industries in Canada and beyond, including our own,” he said. “Whether it be agricultural, petroleum products, or anything else, there needs to be a heightened focus on keeping rail supply moving.
“We see ourselves as an integral part of the supply chain for many products, and although we will see some opportunities come out of this service interruption, inevitably, we will also see our business suffer as well.”