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On July 1, Canada celebrated its 149th birthday. Just prior to Canada Day, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of industry professionals on the topic of the Canadian freight market during a Stifel conference call. For those of you trying to learn more about America’s neighbor to the north, this and subsequent blogs will capture the highlights from the presentation.

Canada has a population of 36.3 million people, about one tenth the size of the United States and similar in size to the population of the state of California. The majority of the population lives within a 200 mile radius of the US border, the longest unprotected border in the world. About 20 million Canadians live in the major metropolitan locations of Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Canada has the eleventh largest economy in the world.

From a freight perspective, the country can be divided into 4 distinct regions. Each region has its own industries and transportation challenges.

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In the most recent Transportation Buying Trends Survey undertaken by Canadian Transportation & Logistics magazine, there is an interesting set of questions that pertain to fuel surcharges. Over 68% of shippers support the view that “fuel surcharges are necessary as long as fuel costs continue to be highly volatile.”  Slightly less than half of the survey respondents believe “carriers apply fuel surcharges correctly.”  Over 61% agreed with the statement that “fuel surcharges are a way for carriers to squeeze additional revenues from their customers to improve their profits.”  Over 55% of shippers support the view that “carriers should adjust their freight charges to market rates that include fuel surcharges and as a result simplify their billings.”

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that 25.8% of shippers have created their own fuel surcharge index.  Since I interact with both shippers and carriers in my daily work, I would like to weigh in on this topic.  This set of responses begs a few questions.  Should shippers be taking their precious time to create fuel surcharge indices and formulas?  How should shippers approach the topic of fuel surcharges?  What should shippers do to optimize their freight costs?  Here are my thoughts.

For shippers that use both private fleet and for-hire carriers, it is essential to be fully informed on all aspects of fuel costs and fuel surcharges.  Even for carriers that use exclusively third party carriers, there is a requirement to have some familiarity with the leading indices and the current surcharges being applied.  For Canadian and cross-border shippers, a subscription to the Freight Carriers Association of Canada’s weekly fuel calculation bulletin will provide you with one of the industry standards for LTL and truckload shipments.  For shippers that use intermodal service or are considering it in their freight programs, they should obtain a copy of the railway/IMC fuel surcharge formulas.  These differ (e.g. are lower) from the over the road surcharge numbers.

The next thing a shipper should do is to gain an understanding of the components of a freight rate.  One needs to understand that a carrier’s freight rate or tariff is based on several components.  There is the cost of pick-up and delivery, the line haul component, the cost for any special handling (e.g. residence, construction site deliveries, etc.) and of course, the fuel component.  For LTL and small parcel shipments, there are a number of other variables that come into play such as shipment weight, density, cube, packaging etc. 

Shippers need to understand that each carrier has its own mix of freight, its own fleet size and specifications (e.g. straight trucks, tandems, tridems etc.), its own head haul and back haul requirements in terms of both yield and volume and its own primary and secondary markets.  In other words, fuel costs and surcharges are a large piece of the puzzle but they represent one element of a carrier’s total cost structure.  At the end of the day, the carrier looks at each shipper’s freight and relates it to their costing model, business requirements, profit objectives and of course, market rates to determine their rate structure.

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