By Alex Binkley

The review of the Canadian Transportation Act has generated badly-needed thinking about the long-term future of the country’s transportation system, keynote speakers at the recent Transportation Forum conference agreed. The Conference was organized by Hill Times Events of Ottawa.

Mike Tretheway, Chief Economist and Chief Strategy Officer with InterVISTAS Consulting Group of Vancouver, told the Forum the report from a panel led by former cabinet minister David Emerson “has set the stage for big transformational opportunities. “It looked at what Canada needs to do to share in the global prosperity twenty years from now,” he noted. “The big step we have to make is to move to a supply chain policy rather than one focused on individual modes. We have to build our supply chains so we’re globally competitive or we’ll be left out.”

Nick Mulder, Senior Associate with Global Public Affairs and a former deputy federal transport minister, said the report “was comprehensive and covered a lot of territory. It points out a lot of important economic changes we need.” They would include better equipment depreciation rules, grain transportation deregulation and improved supply chains and dispute resolution. Still he’s not optimistic a lot of the recommendations will be acted on because the political and business response to the report has been underwhelming. He noted that when all subsections of the report’s more than 50 recommendations are counted, more than 244 changes are proposed. More emphasis on short sea shipping, better port organization and a renewed Canadian Coast Guard are among them.

Workshops on cargo shipping and supply chain management produced similar opinions and some disagreements from transportation and shipper representatives.

During the cargo panel, Bob Masterson, President and CEO of Chemical Industry Association of Canada said he was confident the report won’t be ignored by the government. “Efficient transportation is crucial and there are opportunities for industry and government to collaborate.” The federal government’s role should be “to bring the partners in the transportation system together to make sure there is co-operation,” he urged. The government is still working on how to consult stakeholders on the report and Masterson said it was crucial that the provinces be involved. The biggest issues are generating sufficient investment to keep the transportation sector growing, further enhancing competition in the transportation industry and ensuring the public is confident that freight is being moved safely or transportation will face even more regulations. The focus on supply chains was important because “if Canada can’t match that, we’ll lose out on important opportunities.” He said there are “many issues impeding the flow of goods across the country. We need to data to identify and then solve them.” The chemical industry is the fourth largest manufacturing sector in the country and exports about 70 per cent of its production primarily by rail.

Contrary to the Emerson report, he called for extended interswitching limits available to shippers in Western Canada to be maintained because they provide better service. If the government accepts the report’s call for expanded powers for the CTA, “make sure it has adequate resources to do its job,” he stated. “The Agency should be able to gather and utilize transportation data to help the sectors do their job. We need a lot of data to measure the performance of the system but we also need to keep it confidential.”

Michael Bourque, President and CEO of the Railway Association of Canada, called for a careful assessment of the report’s recommendations “because they are extensive.” He welcomed the report’s call for reliance on market forces to generate competition in the sector. Saddling the industry with more regulations was a heavy burden on the country’s shortline railways, which have to compete with trucking. Shortlines should also be eligible for infrastructure support to upgrade their lines and equipment, he urged. “They move about 20 per cent of the rail freight, much of which goes to mainline carriers. They are of vital importance to the industry and if they disappear, all their traffic would have to go by truck. We need shortlines for a sustainable transportation network. They should be looked at by government in an urgent way. There’s a big regulatory burden on them because of level crossings and safety regulations. They need financial assistance for investing in heavier track which would give them a productivity lift.” He opposed giving the Canadian Transportation Agency more power to regulate railways when it should be stressing increased mediation of disputes.

Wendy Zatylny, President of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities, said the ports are agents of the crown but operate as commercial entities.

She said the CargoM project in the port of Montreal has shown how co-operation among the players in a port can help grow everyone’s business. “Government funding can help that way.” She noted the Asia Pacific Gateway was a success in improving the flow of goods in and out of the lower mainland of British Columbia because it involved everyone in the supply chain.

In the intermodal/supply chain panel, Ruth Snowden, Executive Director of Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association (CIFFA), said Canada has to align its transport and supply chain policies with those of the United States “or we’ll be excluded from the flow of international cargo. Like water, it follows the path of least resistance.” It’s also crucial to develop an integrated data pipeline to improve the movement of freight, she said. CIFFA would like to see Canada become known as a global transportation hub for all modes. It would induce international shippers to use Canada as a platform to forward their goods to final destinations.

David Monpetit, Chairman of Western Canadian Shippers’ Coalition, said there should be “a full evaluation of the recommendations before we spend public money on them.” A national supply chain strategy is needed to match what other countries are doing. His members are heavy users of rail transportation and would support expanded powers for CTA if they are balanced in terms of commercial freedoms and regulations. “We would like final offer arbitration to be strengthened and made more accessible. Also we need more data so we can see how the transportation system is working and to identify pinch points and underutilized rail lines that we could put business on to help the railways.” Increased data “would give us a good look at railway performances,” he pointed out. “We could also use statistics on how ports are working together. Expanded use of short sea shipping is another opportunity. Think of what we could take off the roads in the Vancouver area.”

Marc-Andre Roy, Vice President of consulting firm CPCS, said the review snubbed Transport Canada by proposing expanded powers for CTA when Transport Canada “can do a lot of what the report proposes.” Still, he said, “there are a lot of good recommendations in the report but it comes down to how we can pay for it all.” It’s also important to establish the priority areas in the recommendations. One area he said needed more consideration is creation of regional port authorities to better co-ordinate the activities of the ports. He also called short sea shipping as a way to ease highway congestion. “It still needs a market based approach.”