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Getting on track with transport solutions

Cargo truck.

karam miri

'All lanes are closed on the westbound 401 as crews work to remove a truck that rolled over. ..." You've heard that before. Another regular one is, "A large truck fire has caused police to shut down a busy section of the 401 ..."

We've all seen crashes, spills, fires and rollovers. I've seen garbage, lumber, livestock, cement and all kinds of other cargo flying off trucks or spread across the roadway. I've had numerous windshields cracked by large stones flying off concrete trucks or muddy flatbeds carrying heavy equipment.

The 401, especially around Toronto, is one of the busiest highways in the world, some days carrying more than half a million vehicles including a huge number of transport trucks. The high cost of fuel, shortage of qualified drivers and increasing time wasted in traffic jams is forcing more shippers to look at intermodal rather than truck-only long-distance delivery. About time, say I.

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While I hate having those massive 53-footers bearing down on me, I have a great deal of sympathy for the people who drive them.

It is one tough job. It's not unusual to be on the road away from home for two or three weeks at a stretch. This involves eye-glazing hours at the wheel interrupted only by truck stop meals and overnights in a grungy bunk. No wonder the trucking industry loses nearly 20 per cent of its drivers annually. There is always a shortage of drivers and rigs lie idle as a result.

I was reading an American study that suggest salaries paid to drivers will have to go up 30 per cent in the next couple of years to attract and retain qualified drivers. Government safety regulations are finally getting more serious and this puts more pressure on competent drivers and helps weed out the less than competent ones. The economics of shipping are tilting from road to rail.

The big trucking companies are catching on. Contrans Inc., built from the remains of Laidlaw Transportation and now a big consolidator in trucking, has made a deal to buy a bunch of Raildecks multimodal flat-rack containers.

A Raildeck is like the skeleton of a big, open 53-foot container. You put this thing on a flatbed truck and take it to an industrial company. It loads it up with pipe or steel beams or whatever and the trucking company picks it up and takes it to a rail terminal. There it gets dropped on a railway flat car for a trip across the country. Then the trucking company picks it up and delivers it at that end.

"There's a big change happening in the driver population," said Steven Brookshaw, vice-president, flatbed operations, at Contrans. "Guys don't want to be on the road for weeks at a time. This allows us to have our trucks closer to home and do the line-haul portion with rail and then do a local delivery at the other end."

Contrans has 60 Raildecks on order and believes that gives it an edge with customers with a "Green" mandate. The big German industrial company Siemans is an example. "With companies like Siemens we get an advantage. This will produce about 75 per cent less greenhouse gas to get the product the same distance if we take it by the Raildeck method versus truck-only," said Brookshaw.

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He points out the line-haul distance has to be 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) or more to make economic sense and that the delivery time between west coast and Toronto is the same with Raildecks as truck only.

In British Columbia recently, I watched a huge long train of double-stacked containers heading east – Chinese imports no doubt. In the midst of them were dozens and dozens of containers with the Canadian Tire logo across them. "Good for Crappy Tire," I thought for getting this stuff off the highways. It made me feel better about the company than any number of touchy-feely TV commercials.

Converting a traditional over-the-road commodity to rail is a good way to go "green." Using containers like Raildecks reduce greenhouse gas emissions, frees up space on highways and makes people feel better about companies like Siemens and Canadian Tire.

Does it save shippers money? Not yet, but wait a year or two.

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