SAINT JOHN – A faster, more efficient rail system is key to the growth of Canadian ports, said leaders in the industry at a conference of port authorities Tuesday.

“It’s really simple and it’s really all about logistics. You have to be able to move a particular cargo from point A to point B at an acceptable price in an acceptable condition within an acceptable time frame,” said Andrew Dixon, vice-president of marketing and business development at the Saint John Port Authority.

He was speaking on the second day of a four-day conference of port authorities at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre in Saint John.

To remain competitive, ports need to look closely at inland connections, Dixon said.

“The infrastructure has to be there,” he said.

One of the most important factors that will play into which infrastructure to focus on is cost efficiency, he said, because a shipper may be willing to take a day’s delay for a reduction in price.

All of which has ports and shipping industry officials looking at Canada’s rail system.

“The rail mode of transport should be a significant option not just from a cost and service point of view, but from an environmental point of view,” said Cliff Mackay, president and chief executive officer of the Railway Association of Canada, speaking during a panel at the conference.

He said that CP and CN will invest more than $300 million into its Eastern Canada rail networks alone.

More than three-quarters of all rail shipping traffic crosses over international borders, he said.

“What it’s all about is serving the global shipping community. I can’t emphasize this enough,” he said.

But as railways look to increase capacity, one of the biggest challenges comes from the communities in which the railways are located.

“We are devoting more resources to how we deal with conflict at the community level. Our ability to have good relations with communities is absolutely critical. We have to let the community know what we are doing in a way that doesn’t catch them flat-footed and create problems for the local mayor,” MacKay said.

Currently the association is developing a framework for managing conflicts that are arising as a result of the 24/7 basis of railway work today. Noise and vibration are two of the most pressing challenges, he said.

“We are realizing the number of problems that can be avoided through community planning. Why put a mall on one side of the tracks, a new subdivision on the other and the school situated so that five-year-olds have to walk across the tracks,” said Mackay.

John Murphy, vice-president with Irving Transportation Services, said ensuring the presence of a continuous supply chain is vital, whether ship, truck, plane or rail is involved.

“As a shipper I can’t afford to be positioned where I only have one option to get into a market,” he said.

A quality logistics chain will trump everything else, he said.

“You can have the best, brightest, shiniest port in the world, but if it doesn’t tie the shipper into the supply chain, he won’t use it,” he said.