By David Shipley
As appeared on page C1
The humble freight train is making a comeback.
Rising fuel costs, an increasing difficulty in recruiting long-haul transport truck drivers and environmental concerns have reinvigorated rail and kicked off a 21st century renaissance.
Mark Hollman, director of communications for the Canadian National Railway Company, says the company is bullish about its future prospects in New Brunswick.
“We see across our system – and I would say this is the same in Atlantic Canada – opportunities to increase CN share of the transportation marketplace.
“Railways are very well positioned going forward to be become a much greater factor in the transportation sector.”
The growth in the rail sector comes as fuel prices continue to climb and trucking companies are struggling to find long-haul transport truck drivers, he says.
Hollman’s comments come as CN gets set to hold its annual shareholder meeting in Moncton on Tuesday.
CN is New Brunswick’s largest player in the rail industry with more than 390 route miles of track in the province.
New Brunswick is also served by two smaller, short-line railroads – the New Brunswick Southern Railroad and New Brunswick East Coast Railroad.
The three companies work together to provide freight service for the province’s resource and industrial sectors by providing connections in Quebec and Maine to major North American markets.
CN isn’t the only company that’s optimistic about the future of rail in New Brunswick.
Ian Simpson, general manager of NB Southern, says his company, part of the Irving Transportation Group, has recently completed another round of hiring.
“We’ve been growing steadily over the last number of years,” he says.
NB Southern, which looks after CN’s operations in Saint John, also owns the Eastern Maine Railway in the United States.
It also works with the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway in Maine.
The driver for the growth of NB Southern has been its expansion of multi-modal services such as reload and distribution centres.
Intermodal or multi-modal transportation occurs when containers are offloaded from massive cargo ships and then transported by rail, transport truck or small short-sea vessels, depending on which one offers the best combination of availability, speed and efficiency.
“Over the years the (national class) railroads have abandoned a lot of spur lines, so there are a lot of regions without rail service,” Simpson says. “We give (companies in those regions) the benefit of being able to load in rural New Brunswick and truck it to our rail yard here in Saint John.”
“We’ll cross stock the product from a truck into our distribution centre then onto a railcar.”
From there, the customer’s product will be cross loaded onto a train destined for major market in North America.
“It’s really been able to expand the delivery and the customer reach of many of the shippers in this region.”
For both the Atlantic Gateway, which aims to see increased amounts of container traffic flowing through Halifax to the U.S. Northeast and back from Asia, and Atlantica, which seeks to boost inter-regional as well as international trade, rail service is a critical element.
Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a supporter of the Atlantic Gateway and Atlantica concepts, says rail has come a long way over the past two decades.
“I think much like we’ve moved beyond the age of sail in terms of shipping, we’ve moved far beyond the iron horse in the era of 21st century rail links.”
Among the important innovations in rail has been the increased adoption of intermodal or multi-modal transportation, he says.
Hollman says CN is an active member of the Atlantic Gateway Council and is keen on the concept.
“We see opportunities in terms of the fact that it can offer a very compelling alternative to the capacity constrained West Coast ports for routing rising volumes of containerized import products from China and the Indian subcontinent.”
CN, which spends $62 million in the province on its operations and $20 million on capital expenses, has made investments needed to enable it to grow, he says.
“We’re ready. We have the physical plant or the rail infrastructure as well as the fleet to be able to accommodate increased business without any issues.”
Hollman says environmental issues are also prompting greater awareness of rail.
“I think there is a greater sense of recognition that you can take a big intermodal train that can effectively replace more 200 trucks on the road.”
Railways benefit in terms of fuel economy because of a low amount of friction between steel wheels and the rails, he noted.
“Also through our fleet renewal of our locomotive fleet we’re also getting some of the more fuel efficient locomotives that meet the highest standards recently in terms of regulatory requirements for emissions.”
According to figures from NB Southern, a fully-loaded transport truck emits 1.42 kilograms of CO2 per kilometre. A train loaded with 20 cars will emit 13.7 kilograms per kilometre, half of the 28.4 kilograms of CO2 that 20 loaded transport trucks would emit.
“From an environmental standpoint, rail is more efficient, there is no question,” says Simpson.