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Periodically, business conditions change. These changes can have positive or negative effects on certain sectors of the freight transportation industry.

Intermodal transportation uses at least two modes of transportation (i.e. road, rail) to move freight. The intermodal option works best when the rail service provider has terminals within a fifty-mile radius of the origin and destination points and on major long haul (i.e. over 1000 mile) lanes. While intermodal volumes have grown over the past couple of decades, this business remains a niche market. The typical road/rail combo service is usually a few days longer than over the road transportation, but it is normally priced a few percentage points below truck service. This may be a pivot point for intermodal. Here’s why.

The US and Canadian Domestic Intermodal Freight Markets

Two hurricanes in the southern US and solid economic conditions in Canada and United States have been driving a tightening of trucking capacity. As it tightens, intermodal service can be an option on some freight shipping corridors. Shippers often look to intermodal service for lower freight costs. As truck capacity shrinks and spot market rates rise, this may create an impetus for shippers to migrate some traffic from road to rail.

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The last blog in this series examined road and rail transportation within Canada; this blog will focus cross-border freight transportation. Please note that there are a set of processes and procedures ( ) that must be followed in order to move goods successfully between the United States and Canada. Please refer to the second blog in this series for details.

LTL Service

It should first be noted that only a small number of American LTL carriers have a network of terminals across Canada. Con-Way, FedEx Freight, YRC Reimer and ABF service the major points in Central and Western Canada. They work with interline carriers to service the remaining points in each province and territory. There are no Canadian LTL carriers that have extensive LTL networks in the United States. While some Canadian LTL carriers have terminals in selected US locations (i.e. Chicago, Los Angeles), most LTL carriers work with partners on the other side of the border.

The following chart displays the logos of some of the major LTL carriers that service the cross-border freight market.

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This blog will focus on road and rail transportation within Canada; the next blog will look at cross-border freight transportation.

Rail Transportation

As outlined in the first blog in this series, Canada is large land mass with limited population. As a result, Canada’s two class 1 railways, along with the country’s short line carriers, play a very important role in meeting the needs of Canada’s freight industry. The networks of Canada’s two major railways, CN and CP, appear below.

CN Rail is a tri-coastal railway. It connects Canada’s major ports in Eastern Canada to the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, BC, and the major cities in between and then goes through Chicago, IL all the way down to New Orleans, LA on the Gulf of Mexico. CN connects to the major American class 1 railways to supply cross-border service for the points that it does not serve on a direct basis.

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Back in the 90s, I had the privilege of leading Canada’s largest Intermodal Marketing Company. Since that time, I have been a big supporter of this service. In our consulting work with shippers, we are often struck by the fact that this service remains undervalued and underutilized. The purpose of this blog is to challenge shippers to revisit and rethink their company’s intermodal activity and help them craft an effective plan within their supply chain strategy.

While intermodal service provides various benefits, the top advantage is that on longer lengths of haul (i.e. over 1000 miles), it typically costs less than over the road truckload service. While transit times are longer in some (but not all) instances, the economies of moving multiple containers on an intermodal train usually provide shippers with a cost advantage. When compared to truck transport, lower fuel surcharges and less exposure to driver shortages are also beneficial.

Over the past decade, all of the class 1 railroads in North America have invested heavily in their Intermodal terminal network and service offerings. As an example, a few years ago, CN Rail built a rail facility in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the closest North American port to Asia. That port allows for the movement of intermodal containers on a single-line CN train from Prince Rupert across Canada or through Chicago as far south as New Orleans, LA. Here are a few steps to consider in preparing an effective intermodal strategy.

Step 1 – Revisit your vendor and customer service requirements

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Best Practices in Intermodal Transportation

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The term intermodal refers to moving a container or trailer by more than one mode of transportation—generally truck plus rail, ocean plus rail, ocean plus truck, or all three modes. Some recent freight industry trends—such as long-haul trucking capacity shortages, higher fuel costs, and a drive to reduce environmental impact—have sparked new interest in intermodal, especially pairing truck and rail as an alternative to over-the-road (OTR) trucking for domestic moves. For many years, shippers were reluctant to use Intermodal service. Memories of poor service, of containers or trailers stuck in a rail yard, coupled with the speed and flexibility of using over the road service on shorter distances, inhibited intermodal growth. That seems to be changing.

The American Association of Railroads is reporting record intermodal volumes in some months. Truck capacity and driver shortages, the investments made by the major railways on many key business corridors, the increasing use of Intermodal long haul service by truckers, along with improved technology are fueling a so-called “rail renaissance.” "Domestic intermodal is growing much faster than almost any other area of the U.S. economy or industry," says Scott Webb, senior vice president at NFI Intermodal, a carrier based in Cherry Hill, N.J.

What are some Best Practices that shippers and Logistics Service Providers can follow to take advantage of Intermodal service? Here are a few tips.

1. Educate yourself on how Intermodal service can benefit your company

Identify the railroads, drayage companies and IMCs (Intermodal Marketing Companies) that service your lanes of traffic. Learn about chassis, trailers and containers and the size and number of the containers (e.g. 20 foot, 40 foot and/or 53 foot) available in your area. Educate yourself on the head haul and back haul requirements of the intermodal providers serving your traffic corridors. Compare the transit times and costs against the over the road options across all lanes. Find out about their closest rail terminal and its hours of operation. Examine the length of haul on your major lanes and the hours of service it will take a driver to move your loads. Will an OTR driver hit the maximum hours of service in a day on some key corridors and then have to take a ”time out?” Would you be able to obtain essentially the same transit time by switching to intermodal service that can be competitive on lanes as short as 450 miles? If you are an import/export shipper, learn more about the locations of ports that serve your major locations. Meet with representatives of these companies, take some terminal tours and review your operational requirements with them. Find out what they can do for you.

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At the end of each year, I like to take stock of the major freight transportation stories of the past twelve months and look ahead to the trends that will drive the industry in the coming year.  The two blogs that I write are prepared from my perspective as a consultant to shippers and carriers.

This year I would like to hear from you.  Those of you who follow this blog observe trends in your segment of the industry.  Please take a minute to share them with me.  Please post them on this blog or send a private e mail to

Please feel free to select any major trend or trends that are having or will have a major impact on our industry, whether regulatory, economic, technological, demographic, consumer behavior, environmental, modal shifts or business strategy.

To broaden the range of inputs and perspectives, I will also post this request on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.  In the coming weeks I will be preparing my two lists.  The lists will include a blend of my observations and yours.  Look for these two blogs in mid-December.  Thank you to those of you who take the time to share your observations with me.


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Pierre Berton, the late, famous Canadian author noted in his book, “The Last Spike,” that CP Rail has held a respected place in the country’s history.  He wrote that “no other private company, with the single exception of Hudson’s Bay Company, has had such an influence on the destinies of the nation.” For most of the past 15 years, CP Rail faced stiff competition from CN Rail as Paul Tellier and Hunter Harrison led the company’s move from a bloated government run enterprise to a highly profitable public company.  In fact CN’s operating ratio of 61.3 is not only the best among the major North American railroads, it is one of the best of any company in the transportation industry.

The fact that CP Rail lagged so far behind CN Rail and the other class 1 railways in North America led the activist investor Bill Ackman, of Pershing Square Capital, to launch his “palace revolt” proxy battle that resulted in the replacement of CP’s former President with Hunter Harrison, whom he brought out of retirement to drive the railway’s profit improvement.

As we pass through the last quarter of this year, Canada’s two largest railroads are heading down separate tracks.  With an operating ratio is the low 80’s, Mr. Harrison has embarked on a series of actions to reduce costs through improved asset utilization.  This is another way of saying that CP Rail is planning to move its equipment more quickly and efficiently, to become Canada’s second “precision” railroad.   It is seeking to accomplish this by undertaking a series of initiatives.  These include:

  • Building trains at CP’s intermodal terminal in Vancouver with blocks of cars for long haul destinations. This reduces stops and streamlines connections.
  • Increasing average train lengths to 7,000 to 12,000 feet
  • Speeding up the fueling of trains
  • Improving daily scheduling
  • Investing $1.2 billion in 2012 and $1 billion in 2013 on key infrastructure projects
  • Working with customers at both ends to improve coordination

The net result of these changes is that CP Rail now provides 4 day transit times between Vancouver and Chicago and Toronto.  These changes represent half of the transcontinental trains that CP launches daily across its network.  Mr. Harrison is not expecting an overnight drop in the company’s operating ratio.  He told Bloomberg News that he is targeting about 65 percent in the next four years.

Shippers appear to be taking notice of improved service on both major Canadian railways. 

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The world of freight transportation is changing rapidly.  The signs are there and they are unmistakable.  Recognizing and responding effectively to these signals may help determine which shippers and carriers will survive in the years ahead.  Let’s examine the components of the new paradigm of freight transportation.

The Era is Cheap Oil is Over

The steep escalation in fuel prices this year is a harbinger of things to come for shippers and carriers.  This time there will likely be no major recession to bring energy prices down.  The sad fact is that 95 percent of transportation modes, passenger and freight, run on petroleum products and the likelihood of finding new sources of supply or of shrinkage in global demand is highly unlikely. In fact the use of petroleum in countries such as China and India is on the rise.

The result will be tighter truck capacity, greater use of intermodal rail services, the electrification of transportation systems, the relocation of factories and distribution centres and the slow shift to cleaner, cheaper fuels.  It will drive more LCV’s (long combination vehicles) or “turnpikes” and more triple trailer configurations.  This may be the impetus to harmonize our laws throughout North America to remove barriers to the movement of the most energy efficient vehicle combinations across our highways.   To curb use, many countries will have to begin looking at the Danish example of higher taxes on fuel inefficient vehicles and higher taxes on petroleum.  Get used to it.

The Driver Shortage is Real

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Freight Transportation Adjusts to a Resetting World Economy

The year 2011 was another momentous one that was shaped by events on all continents of the world.  Uprisings in the Middle East and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gadhafi, the European debt crisis, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and the premature passing of Steve Jobs were just a few of the signature events of another action-packed year. 

Closer to home, the three countries in North America all faced significant challenges.  The powerful drug cartels in Mexico are threatening its very existence as a democracy as the country gears up for elections in 2012.  The untimely death of Jack Layton, the very popular leader of the New Democratic party and the demise of Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party have given Steven Harper a majority government and a free hand at steering the Canadian economy over the next four years.  The U.S. situation is exactly the opposite as Democrats and Republicans cannot reach agreement on almost anything and as a result the country is in gridlock on most economic initiatives to spark its economy. 

Against a background of 8.6 percent unemployment in the U.S., millions more underemployed, one in four homes is worth less than the value of the mortgage, tight credit, anxiety over job security and a possible relapse into another recession, the economy is resetting.  Americans are saving more.  As various generations of families live together to better withstand the current economic uncertainties, home builders are erecting homes with two master bedrooms to address the social consequences of these challenging times.   Smartphones, tablets and the internet are reshaping so many of our day to day activities.  The economies of North America and around the world are being reset by this confluence of forces and by the rise of China and other developing nations around the world.

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