Canada's path to progress

Canada's path to progress

Listening to the give-and-take among the various players in Canada's transportation system at the inaugural Canada-Asia Maritime Conference in Vancouver last week, there was much that sounded familiar from an American point of view. We live with a remote federal government, congestion problems at seaports and transport infrastructure that takes forever to get approved and built. It is no different in Canada.

But it was also apparent that comparisons between the freight transport environments in Canada and the U.S. can only be taken so far. While the U.S. remains mired in policy gridlock, with transport still a footnote on the list of national priorities, Canada, facing many of the same issues, seems to be finding a way forward.

That was evident not just in an eloquent speech by British Columbia's transport minister, Kevin Falcon, who compared the province's transport investment plans to Canada's investment in the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, but especially by the reaction to what he had to say.

Instead of rolling their eyes - as we typically do in the U.S. - at well-intentioned officials who speak in visionary terms about the importance of transportation, many in the audience believed in Falcon's vision to bring the province, Canada's principal gateway for Asia-Pacific trade, up to world-class standards by 2020.

"We have finally turned a corner. The government has come to the realization that we need to make these investments to grow the economy and international trade," said Paul Landry, president and CEO of the British Columbia Trucking Association.

The contrast is equal parts tone and substance. Canada needs to improve its transportation system in the face of resistant urban populations and a democratic system of decision-making that adds years to projects that in China are given the go-ahead in an afternoon meeting. As in the U.S., Canada's freight transport has been neglected at the federal level for decades. As Perrin Beatty, president and chief executive of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said, a truly national, efficient system "is not happening today."

But what Canada has that the U.S. lacks is a plan, at least at the provincial level, and things are going to start to happen. There is serious talk about merging the ports of Vancouver, North Fraser River and Fraser River into a single authority, an action that would need federal blessing but is still a possibility. When Virginia merged its coastal ports in 1982, it marked the beginning of a long period of growth and success.

The Port of Prince Rupert will begin operating next fall with an initial 500,000-TEU capacity terminal operated by Maher Terminals. That will bring into reality a century-old vision for a straight-line ship-rail route from Asia to the U.S. Midwest. According to the British Columbia Ports Strategy, a report co-published by Canada's Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Small Business and Economic Development, the province wants to expand its North American West Coast container market share from about 9.3 percent today to 17 percent by 2020.

But there are significant obstacles. Canadian ports have been trying without success to get the national Canada Marine Act amended so they can be freed up to attract more private capital for expansion.

And typical on-the-ground problems remain. Speakers pointed out that Vancouver's reputation internationally has been hurt by labor unrest among port truckers. A representative of the retailer Costco asked why it often takes four days to get his containers off Vancouver's docks. The response was that much of the problem relates to vessels arriving in bunches or at times when they are not expected, making it difficult to match up containers and rail equipment.

"Many, many times it's a surprise (when vessels arrive), and it really clogs up the system," said Gordon Houston, president and chief executive of the Port of Vancouver.

And rail equipment itself is a perpetual concern. With building shareholder value their top priority, railroads are not willing to invest to handle peak-season capacity if the equipment will remain idle for 10 months a year. "We're just not going to do it," said Fred Green, president and CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway.

Would shippers and other parties be willing to contribute to a pool of peak-season rail capacity? Said James Foote, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Canadian National, "That's a long way away."

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7158, or at ptirschwell@joc.com.